With the recent help of The Institute of Biblical Leadership, Revolve Bible Church’s extended leadership team crafted a revised vision statement over several days of intensive training and prayer. In it, an interesting clause was added: “faithfully committed to biblical literacy."  What became clear to all was that for a church who was serious about glorifying God and making disciples of Jesus, biblical literacy was a critical avenue to do so. Though everyone agreed to this amendment it did raise the question, What exactly is biblical literacy?
This question will frame the backdrop to a three-part blog series I offer on the importance of a church being biblically literate. Part 1 will address the question of why Christians need to be biblically literate, illustrated by horrific examples of those who were not. Part 2 will offer definitional statements explaining what biblical literacy actually is and what is required of the Christian to be genuinely literate in Scripture. Finally, part 3 will discuss the how of biblical literacy by explaining its application and the importance of correct biblical hermeneutics (interpretation).
PART 1: WHY THE NEED FOR BIBLICAL LITERACY: IGNORING THE PAST REPEATS ITS MISTAKES
November 18, 1978: An organized mass suicide of over 900 members of the “Peoples Temple” in Guyana, South America led by Jim Jones—a narcissistic, “Christian Marxist” who was ordained by the Independent Assemblies of God. Jones reveled in titles like “pastor” and “reverend” while claiming to be the audible voice of God and personal fulfillment of OT prophecies, such as the return of the prophet Elijah. Discovered among the pile of bodies were 304 children who were forced by their own parents to drink the group’s cyanide laced flavor-aid, following Jones’s explicit commands to do so.
April 19, 1993: The horrific end to the “siege of Waco” in Texas as almost 80 members of the cultic Branch Davidians burned to death when their compound was set ablaze. Among the rubble were twenty-five children and two pregnant women (all practically unidentifiable), forced to their deaths by the group’s leader David Koresh—a delusional, false-prophet off-shoot of Seventh Day Adventism who claimed to be the Lamb of Revelation 5 who alone was worthy to open the scroll.
March 26,1997: San Diego sheriffs discover 39 bodies all dressed the same as they lay in bunks scattered inside a home in Rancho Santa Fe, CA. Such was the result of the ordered mass suicide by “Heaven’s Gate” leader Marshall Applewhite—a space alien enthusiast and former presbyterian who identified (along with his late co-leader Bonnie Nettles) as one of the two witnesses of Revelation 11. Together they taught that they were incarnations of Jesus and the Father, and later, Marshall claimed he was tasked to lead his followers by spacecraft to “the kingdom of heaven,” which he called, “the evolutionary level above human.” There, the groups would receive their glorified bodies, coinciding with the arrival of the Halle-Bopp comet.
Of course, these examples of Bible-hijackers are the extreme. And, of course, there are others of equal infamy—from the recent “psychic surgeon” in Brazil, João Teixeira de Faria (referred to as “John of God”) guilty of innumerable sex crimes and medical malpractice while claiming to be a biblical prophet, to notorious false-teachers of the past like Joseph Smith (Mormonism) and Joseph Franklin Rutherford (Jehovah’s Witnesses). The list of unqualified Bible teachers with cult followings stretches all the way back to early second century with the first (in)famous “Christian” heretic Marcion—who butchered the unity of Scripture to the extent of seeing two opposing gods, one of the OT and one of the NT.
Countless others who are more subtle have spotted history. Their ends may not include mass suicides or sieges, but they are equally dangerous. Indeed, their danger is precisely because of their subtlety compared to the Jim Joneses of the world. This sort run rampant in our day. Indulgent faith healers, prosperity gospel peddlers, and supposed prophets and apostles are a constant nuisance as they twist Scripture out of joint to desperate crowds, whose Bibles continue to collect dust (or whose apps gets crowded by myriads of social media vanity). These groups are not led by men or women humble or level-headed enough to follow Paul’s lead of referring to himself as a “slave” before he was an “apostle” (Rom 1:1). At times, the apostle was even satisfied with identifying only by his slavery to Christ (see Gal 1:10). Instead, these fraudsters delight in claiming apostleship and prophetic offices for themselves and intimidate their members from any challenge nearing an accurate understanding of Scripture.
For these people, the average Christian is lower than laity. They are a card in a fixed poker game. Such sheep are cheated out of their money and any real spirituality while funding the con-artist holding hidden cards claiming to be a prophet or apostle. Ignoring Peter’s and John’s assurance that all true believers are priests before God who have the Spirit as their ultimate teacher (1 Peter 2:9; 1 John 2:27), these imposters keep their empires in check by warning against touching “the Lord’s anointed”—another definitional heist that leverages a biblical idea out of context over enamored victims. 
As diverse each of these “extreme” and “subtle” groups are, they are connected in an unmistakable way: Each leader exploits the Bible to the glory of themself and to the hopeless end of their followers. Familiar biblical terms like “kingdom of heaven,” “witness,” “Armageddon,” “prophecy,” “faith,” even “Jesus” and “Father,” are often highjacked by these cultists to launch their own self-aggrandized agendas. They wield Scripture like a hacksaw, severely cutting up passages out of context and steamrolling them over people who are too intimidated (or mesmerized) to speak up. By mixing Christian theology with their own philosophies, each one creates a hybrid of bizarre and destructive, yet intoxicating ideas (see Col 2:8). Like Gary Oldman’s character Carnegie in the film The Book of Eli, each of these powermongers manipulate Scripture to their own desires while leaving behind mountains of scandal, shame, and trauma as their legacy. They each love to intoxicate their crowds. And they each misuse the Bible as their drug to do it.
An additional common denominator unites these groups: the wolves are never held accountable by their sheep—with Scripture. Far from the typical caricature of an unsuspecting, teenage hippie picked up by a van driven by the Manson family (another cult whose leader abused the Bible to gain a following), such groups include highly educated politicians, business owners, civic leaders, even theologians. Remarkably, David Koresh had a loyal disciple to the end, Dr. Steve Schneider, who earned PhD in Comparative Religion from the University of Hawaii and served as Koresh’s spokesman during the 51-day siege at Waco (referred to as Koresh’s “chief lieutenant”).  According to Byron Sage, one of the FBI’s negotiators, “Schneider was educated. He was articulate, but he didn’t have the independence of thought or the ability to do anything without the blessing of David."  Ultimately, Schneider’s terminal degree in religion proved useless; even deadly.
The same can be said of Heaven’s Gate leader Marshall Applewhite, who was educated in theology at Union Presbyterian Seminary, and Jim Jones at Indiana University as well as Butler University, where he earned his degree in secondary education. They took their academic exposure to the Bible and chose to exploit their learning rather than truly learn the Bible. Clearly, the result can be devastating. Instead of their flocks emulating the “noble Bereans” who carefully examined everything Paul taught in light of Scripture (Acts 17:11), such confused sheep swallow everything their wolves give them—even, as these cases show, literally to death at times.
The lesson is clear. It is critical for Christians to understand the Bible. Biblical literacy can even become a matter of life and death. What would’ve changed if just one person who correctly understood Scripture’s teaching on apostleship and prophecy confronted David Koresh, who clearly did not (Acts 1:21–22; 1 Cor 13:1–3; 14:29–33)? What would’ve been the outcome if more parents in the Jonestown massacre understood Scripture’s explicit rejection of offering children to false gods and causes (Lev 20:2–4; Jer 32:35)? Imagine if a single member of Heaven’s Gate actually took the time to look up references to “heaven” in the Bible and contrasted what it says about the throne room of God to the science fiction readings that Applewhite used to lure followers into his imaginary flying saucer? The examples may be extreme, but they are endless. So are the more subtle cases confronting the average believer.
Space limits calling out the errors of popular word-of-faith prosperity teachers who equally exploit the Bible, and are given free rein to do so by their crowds. Names like Joel Osteen, Steven Furtick, Benny Hinn, Paula White, Bill Johnson, Kenneth Copeland, Jentezen Franklin, Todd White, and so on have become common place in such discussions. Those related to the recent NAR and its Third/Fourth Wave charismania have been documented in accessible volumes. 
While these movements that promise healings and physical blessings in exchange for something deserve to be called to task, a more common danger exists in the average pew on Sundays—sincere Christians simply do not study the Bible for themselves. They tend to be satisfied only with whatever their favorite preacher, Christian author, or theologian says about the Bible rather than examining it personally. Reminiscent of the Corinthians who organized factions around Apollos, Peter, and Paul, they feel proud in in saying: “I follow John MacArthur,” “I follow David Jeremiah,” “I follow Greg Laurie.” The more erudite may take comfort in declaring: “I follow John Calvin,” “I follow Charles Spurgeon,” “I follow Wayne Grudem.” In any event, they each follow their heroes without ever confirming if their heroes’ instruction actually lines up with Scripture (thankfully, in these cases, they mostly do!).
Another danger for the average Christian is becoming dependent on mere table spoons of Scripture, like a daily devotional verse that’s isolated from its context. Contrary to their subtle message, God did not drop the entire Bible out of heaven one verse at a time—and it’s a good thing too. Early in my Christian walk, the verse to claim one day was: “And he said to him, ‘All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me’” (Matt 4:9). The manufactures of the devotional clearly never bothered to look up the passage. Had they done so, they would’ve discovered this verse was in fact the words of Satan as he tempted Jesus to worship him! Laziness becomes a familiar culprit keeping the average Christian from reading, learning, and savoring entire passages in which individual verses are sandwiched. In any case, the need for Christians to read, study, and reflect on the “whole counsel of God” has become tragically apparent in American evangelicalism—where polished one-liner tweets jockeying the Bible saturate a lucrative industry. Christians, especially pastors and teachers, are called to make disciples of Jesus, not disciples dependent on them. 
An Eerie Reminder
Facing the hundreds of bloated dead bodies at People’s Temple in Guyana remained an empty wooden chair. This was the throne of Jim Jones where he would sit and declare lies and false prophecies to his disciples, holding a mic in one hand and (at times) a Bible in the other. Above that throne was a sign fastened to a wooden post that hung eerily over the pile of decaying flesh. Words were neatly written on that sign that thundered through the silence and stench: “THOSE WHO DO NOT REMEMBER THE PAST ARE CONDEMNED TO REPEAT IT.” A chilling, yet ironic, reminder of the destruction that can result from abusing and misusing Scripture to one’s own end. While this is an extreme case, what’s more relevant here is this: not one of the 909 people lying and rotting in homage to their leader had a Bible with them. Jones severely discouraged his members from packing Bibles to bring to the commune, and he possessed the only one among them of which he aware. For everyone else, they were told to use the pages of Scripture as “toilet paper." 
However, of the seven thousand articles authorities inventoried after the mass suicide, fifteen of them were in fact Bibles. It is believed this tiny representation of God’s truth was smuggled in by individual members, as no Bibles were discovered in the Jonestown library. Tragically, they lay hidden and molded, mirroring their owners use of them. What would’ve changed if these 15 Bible smugglers knew enough of their own Bibles to flock to one another and challenge every bit of Jones’s demonically abusive teaching, teaching fueled by passages he willfully ripped out of the same book and twisted to his own glory? Scripture declares itself to be effective for reproving and correcting those who oppose or misuse it and equipping the one who sincerely applies it (2 Tim 3:16).
Hence, the crucial importance of biblical literacy and its place in the local church. This will be discussed further in the next blog, as I will offer an explicit meaning for “biblical literacy” and explain its purpose and goals—along with what is required on the Christian’s part to be biblically literate.
 The full statement is available at: Revolve Bible Church, “Values and Distinctives,” https://revolvebiblechurch.org/about/values-distinctives.
 For an ex-insider’s look see, Costi W. Hinn, God, Greed, and the (Prosperity) Gospel (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2019).
 Adriana Freedman, “Steve Schneider Was David Koresh’s Spokesman During the Waco Tragedy,” Men’s Health, April 29, 2020, https://www.menshealth.com/entertainment/a32317580/steve-schneider-waco-netflix/.
 One solid example is, Costi W. Hinn and Anthony G. Wood, Defining Deception: Freeing the Church from the Mystical-Miracle Movement (El Cajon: SCS Press, 2018).
 See Christopher Cone, Integrating Exegesis and Exposition: Biblical Communication for Transformative Learning (Ft. Worth: Exegetica, 2015), 37–40.
 Alternative Considerations of Jonestown & People’s Temple, Did People Have Bibles in Jonestown (San Diego, CA: San Diego State University, Special Collections of Library and Information Access, February 9, 2018), https://jonestown.sdsu.edu/?page_id=78266.