“No plan survives contact with the enemy.”
~ Helmuth von Moltke
A Bible class is not your enemy, but when you think about it, any serious attempt to understand God’s will has an enemy, and he will be active.
In this post I will address the following: why hostility makes learning difficult, how to lessen its impact by dealing with intentionally contradictory answers, and that learning requires vulnerability. We have to be willing to admit we do not know, or that we might not know.
Why Hostility Makes Learning Difficult
One of the things that many teachers fear, with good reason, is the oppositional or hostile class member. Even worse, sometimes you get more than one of these delightful creatures to deal with.
If the efforts of these people cannot be blunted and neutralized, actual learning will essentially stop. First of all, learning requires vulnerability: we have to be willing to admit we do not know, or that we might not know. We must be open to the opportunity of learning. Hostility either makes us harden our position, or we simply withdraw emotionally and psychologically. In short, these kind of remarks essentially kill the class. At best, everyone simply sits mute before the bully. At worst, everyone retreats to the foxholes as one or a few trade potshots. It’s ugly.
Strong disagreements arose between Paul and Barnabas, and between Paul and Peter, so we should not be surprised if it happens to us.
And this is one of the reasons the teachers like to go through line by line, verse by verse, and not really go anywhere. If there is no direction to the class, then opposition is next to impossible. Whatever is said is greeted with, “We all have opinions,” or something equally vacuous. Most people see such a response as tactful, and is certainly preferable to open combat, but this approach essentially leaves the class rudderless, drifting from one idea to another until it runs aground on the time limitation.
Intentionally Contradictory Answers
We been using Revelation 13 as our example. Let’s take the number 666 for this one. It would not be surprising if someone responded with “So six sixty-six is the number of the Pope, because his title is ‘vicarius filii dei.'”
This may not seem like an intentionally contradictory answer to you, but by this point in the study of the book of Revelation, I will have repeatedly stressed that the key to understanding the symbols of Revelation is the Old Testament. Secondly, we will of established in the very first lesson that the book of Revelation is intended to be understood by John’s first century, or early second century audience. So this interpretation contradicts two of the principles of interpretation we’ve already established.
My experience is that when this interpretation of the number 666 is first mentioned, it may not be intentionally contradictory, but once explored, it usually becomes so. Remember, that the purpose of teaching a Bible class is to model the right way to go about interpreting Scripture. Here’s a typical interaction:
“We have said that the key to interpreting Revelation symbols is in the Old Testament, so is this interpretation supported by the Old Testament?” (Reiterating one of our rules of interpretation).
“Well, no, but this prophecy points to a future time when there will be a Pope.”
“I certainly understand why you would mention that.”
“That’s true, it does point to the future. But then virtually every prophecy in Revelation points to the future, and yet we have consistently found that the keys to interpreting those prophecies lies in the Old Testament.” (Reinforcing yet again that same principle).
“Nevertheless, the Roman numerals for that title equal 666, and it was a title for the Pope.”
“Was there a Pope when the book of Revelation was written?”
“Well, not yet.”
“Then explain to us how John’s audience could make that interpretation, since neither the office of Pope, nor the title for that Pope yet even existed.” Usually this will be followed by some confused silence. The so be a good opportunity for the teacher to ease any tension in the class. “I certainly understand why you would mention that. We’ve all heard it so many times it just seems like a natural answer. And it takes a while — I know it certainly did take me a while — to make a habit of a different way of thinking.”
“Six hundred sixty-six is a fairly specific number, wouldn’t you say?” I would then ask. “I mean, it’s not like five hundred, or thousand, or some round number.” Let that sink in for a few seconds, and then say, “if this specific number — 666 — if that occurred in the Old Testament, would that be significant to interpreting this passage, do you think?” Almost always, people are eager to agree, and intensely curious as to where that number might be found.
In some cases, if a person has a particularly strong emotional attachment to the other interpretation, they might challenge you strongly by asking, “You’re not going to tell us that 666 is found somewhere the Old Testament, are you?”
At which point you smile brightly and say, “Excellent question! That’s exactly what we should look for, an Old Testament passage that somehow refers to this number — 666!” Even though it was put you in a hostile manner, that is the correct question, and is proceeding in the proper manner.
Since the purpose of teaching a Bible class is to model the proper procedure, this gives the teacher the opportunity to:
- Reduce the tension by crediting the oppositional member with the right motives and the right approach,
- Yet again reinforce the proper procedure, and
- Enlist the class’s curiosity and help in finding the Old Testament reference.
Strong Disagreements, Accusatory Statements, and Hostile Declarations
Any serious attempt to understand God’s will has an enemy, and he will be active. It is inevitable that in a group of human beings, discussing matters that we believe of are of internal importance, that sometimes strong disagreements will arise. It happened between Paul and Barnabas, and between Paul and Peter, so we should not be surprised if it happens to us.
In following posts I will examine how to deal with:
- Accusatory statements and questions
- Hostile declarations