You were probably not aware that I am a retired Marine until now, and you might have heard that Marines don’t like books unless they’re coloring books. You might be right. So then, why am I writing about books? Well, all Marines go through the amoeba stage where we tear the covers off books until we get put in charge of stuff, and then books become important. In fact, the Commandant has a required reading list, and these are not just any books. They are books that help us grow into what the institution expects us to become. They begin easy and get harder as we advance in rank. The idea is that they make us smarter and, therefore, stronger.
For ministers in the Churches of Christ, there is no required reading list and no diocese to tell us what to read next. We’re freelancers, so our study is peppered across a wide variety of subjects and our offices are crammed with multi-colored paperback volumes of whatever we think we need. Most of this deals with what I call the same old thing: faith, grace, instrumental worship, Lord’s supper, baptism, etc. Paul would have called them elementary principles (Col 2:20). Sadly, a large number of our ministers never read much beyond these, and their preaching is a never-ending stream of the same old thing. This does not make our brotherhood smarter or stronger. It does just the opposite. A steady diet of the same old thing dulls the senses and makes the church weak.
Every organization is a direct reflection of its leadership. For a congregation to be smart and strong, its leadership must be smart and strong. To build strength, a muscle must be torn. Both eldership and minsters must grow beyond elementary principles, push intellectual boundaries and read and discuss books that are controversial. For example, books by famous atheists (Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins), intellectual dissenters (Ehrmann), and non-brotherhood Christian scholars (Heiser) will give us sparring strength. Extra-biblical ancient writings (The Pseudepigrapha, The Apocrypha, The Didache), the theological efforts of the Early Church Fathers, and influential early Christian poetry (Dante) and stories (Bunyan) will give us historical and intellectual strength. A basic understanding of the Greek and Hebrew languages will give us deeper contextual insight and hermeneutical strength.
Elementary principals are foundational and must be learned, of course, but they are called milk for a reason (1 Cor 3:2). For churches to be strong, eldership and ministers must build on the elementary, matriculate to higher ground, and pull the congregation up with them. So leaders, read hard books. Grow. And don’t let your congregations languish in the weakness of the same old thing.