Mistakes Bible Teachers Make: Application Problems (Part 1)

No teacher of the Bible wants to be ineffective. The vast majority do teaching work because they love the Scriptures, care about people, and want to be part of God’s work of growing fellow believers into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (ESV, Eph. 4:13). They love to see people discover, learn, and improve.

Still, though their hearts are in the right place, many teachers rightly sense that their teaching isn’t as good as it could be. Application problems are a likely cause, for two reasons: First, students who have truly experienced a new birth (1 Pet. 1:3, 23) value good application more than anything else. Second, teachers are commonly not trained to understand and develop sound and effective applications.

The result is that several application problems are easy to find in churches of fundamentalist heritage.

1. The just plain wrong application

If we engage in application at all, there’s no avoiding this error from time to time. The key is to regularly remind audiences that applications are human things. They are ways we hitch the infallible truth of Scripture to the trailer of “life as we know it.” To extend the analogy a bit further, Scripture is like a fleet of infallible trucks, and biblical principles (some factory-installed and some built on by us later) are like the hitches on the trucks. To get application right, we have to recognize which trailers should be hitched to which trucks. Then we have to make sure the trailers have the right sort of hitch on them and actually execute the hitching process.

Much can go wrong! Still, we have to try—and try hard.

That effort requires a clear understanding of what application is and how to properly derive it. In Living by the Book, Hendricks and Hendricks describe application as answering the question, “How does it work?” (“it” being the passage being studied and taught). I personally prefer a slight variation: “How do I use it?” Others like the skinny version: “So what?”

Getting down to some good applications requires that we first interpret the passage correctly—a topic too huge to address here. But having arrived at a likely sound interpretation, we find applications by asking questions similar to these:

  • How should this passage change what I believe or how I think? (better faith)
  • How should this passage change what I do? (better conduct)
  • How should this passage change what I desire? (better affections/values)

With these general goals in mind, we’re ready for some connecting questions that help us move from what a passage means (interpretation) to how we use it (application):

  • How is the life-situation/setting in this passage similar to our situation as believers today?
  • How is it different?
  • How are the individuals or groups described in the passage (or those addressed by the passage—the original audience) like us today?
  • How are they unlike us today?

Hendricks and Hendricks list nine questions for deriving good applications—all of which depend on two prerequisites:

  • An accurate understanding of the passage: what we’re applying
  • An accurate understanding of ourselves and our situation: what we’re applying it to (human nature, culture, etc.)

2. The hobby horse application

It’s a bit hard to understand why hobby-horse application happens at all. With so much rich and fascinating Scripture to draw from, why would anyone continually emphasize the same very short list of themes? Don’t they get tired of hearing themselves expound (or sometimes, rant) on the same topic over and over?

Admittedly, many passages legitimately support the same applications. We could use quite a few passages to caution God’s people against common expressions of pride, for example. But there’s so much variety in the Book—and it’s all there because we need it.

Three observations for teachers who feel that there is a single topic that is all-important and in need of constant emphasis:

  • Often the best way to teach B is to teach A and C—that is, teach truths A and C that reinforce and strengthen B. (If pride seems to be an area of special local need, teaching about humility, weakness, sin, and God’s perfections is a far more powerful way to attack pride than constantly talking about “pride.”)
  • Often the same truth can be expressed in completely different language. If the topic needs repeated attention, it’s worth the effort to identify what buzzwords we’ve been using then plan a lesson that doesn’t use any of them.
  • When we emphasize the same truths using the same language over an over, people stop hearing us anymore. The human brain starts to replace “we need to rely on God” with “blah blah blah blah blah.” We’re effectively not saying anything anymore.

3. The “spiritualized” application

A teacher goes to the account of David’s defeat of Goliath, then talks about overcoming the giants in our lives. Is he spiritualizing? Maybe. But he might be applying.

What seems like “spiritualizing,” happens in two ways:

  • Allegorizing: This is genuine spiritualizing—turning a bit of biblical history into symbols of something spiritual, as though the story is not a record of actual events and people and God’s dealings with them.
  • Failing to show our work: Algebra teachers know that getting the right answer isn’t enough; you have to get the right answer the right way. This is also the case with application, especially of narrative passages. If we fail to communicate how our situation is similar to that of the characters, we give the impression that we’re randomly turning people and events into symbols, even though we may have properly thought through how the passage relates to us today.

A good habit is to avoid the language of metaphor and employ instead the language of similarity.

  • Bad (the language of metaphor): “David overcame Goliath. What giants do you need to overcome?”
  • Better (the language of similarity): “God led David to a seemingly impossible responsibility and expected him to trust. Are you facing a responsibility that seems impossible? How can you trust God with that?”

The application should be clearly derived from what real people experienced in a real time and place, not from a prominent story feature we’re turning into a mere symbol.

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There are 12 Comments

WallyMorris's picture

Application mistakes are hard to find in many Evangelical churches because many Evangelical churches don't even try to apply what they have taught - a simple & pious "May God Apply this to our hearts and lives". I assume you would have chosen a different title for the movie "Facing The Giants".  Smile

Wally Morris

Charity Baptist Church

Huntington, IN

amomentofcharity.blogspot.com

Ron Bean's picture

I would kindly disagree with Brother Morris' statement that "many evangelical churches don't even try to apply what they've taught". That statement is no  doubt true of liberal and neo-evangelical churches so I'm assuming he's referring to conservative evangelicals. Over the last ten years I've been exposed to  a lot of preaching/teaching by evangelicals (not neo-evangelicals) and the last two churches of which I've been a member would probably be considered evangelical. Application has been obvious and often convicting to me, not only in the sermons, but also in their books. 

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

Ron Bean's picture

Which churches were these? Would I be familiar with any of them?

As far as evangelical preaching goes, I've attended Capitol Hill Baptist Church, a number of evangelical churches where we live now, as well a a number of T4G gatherings and every sermon has been solid exposition with strong application.

"Some things are of that nature as to make one's fancy chuckle, while his heart doth ache." John Bunyan

TylerR's picture

Wally - I've been in fundy churches where I considered making a mad dash for the door, lest God, in His wrath against the blasphemy being vomited forth by the idiot up front, vaporize the building and kill my entire family. This was the connection, if you can follow it: church at Laodicea = evangelicals = Obama = Obamacare = socialism = Obama is a Muslim = Sharia law is coming = they're going to kill you all = altar call

Come on, evangelicals don't have a corner on bad application. I daresay you learned homiletics from a textbook written by an evangelical . . .

Tyler Robbins is a former Pastor. He lives with his family in Olympia, WA. He blogs as the Eccentric Fundamentalist

Dan Miller's picture

Quote:
Getting down to some good applications requires that we first interpret the passage correctly—a topic too huge to address here...

I agree that we must make a distinction between interpretation and application.

Quote:
...But having arrived at a likely sound interpretation, we find applications by asking questions similar to these:

- How should this passage change what I believe or how I think? (better faith)
- How should this passage change what I do? (better conduct)
- How should this passage change what I desire? (better affections/values)

We should stop and consider definitions. Because the first is (by my definitions) not application. 

"How I think" is about truth. And the goal is to use interpretation to align my thinking with the truth revealed in the Word. 

"Change what I do" is application. 

"Change what I desire" - woo, that one... well, let's talk about the first two first. 

Larry Nelson's picture

TylerR wrote:

church at Laodicea = evangelicals = Obama = Obamacare = socialism = Obama is a Muslim = Sharia law is coming = they're going to kill you all = altar call

My (conservative evangelical) pastor (M.Div & Ph.D from SBTS) will be preaching on the Laodicean church (Rev. 3:14-22) the weekend of August 19/20. 

I doubt he will conclude the sermon with those same applications............

Aaron Blumer's picture

@Dan.
There's definitely some gray where interp and app overlap. I'll hopefully have time to post some examples later.
For now, where I draw the line in the case of thinking/belief is generally like this:

* Interp = the truth itself
* App = ways to bring my thinking into conformity with the truth.

In short, internal action is still action and "changing my mind" is an active response to truth .

Aaron Blumer's picture

Well, I wrote out this post and then my browser suddenly closed the tab and didn't remember it. Sad

So another go... Conduct applications are easy, so a couple of the other two...

How should this passage change what I believe or how I think? (better faith)
How should this passage change what I desire? (better affections/values)

  • Gen 14: Abraham chooses King of Salem rather than King of Sodom. He raises his hand to God Most high. Interpretation: He is affirming that God is truly most high in his heart vs. the power of kings and the power of material wealth. He is also choosing to trust in the power of Most High to make him a mighty nation rather than trusting in the wealth of Sodom. Application: We should not be fooled by our instinctive trust in what we can see and carry out of a store vs. the supreme value of the invisible El Elyon and His ability to care for us.
  • Gen 16: The angel asks Hagar where she has come from and where she is going. Interpretation: this is not a request for factual information. The angel is making Hagar face the truth about the choices she has made and the resulting mess. Application: We should resist the tendency to think our problems are other people's fault. We should not be fooled into thinking that because God is gracious (much of that in the context also!) He will keep our foolish choices from having their natural consequences.

The first example is part though/faith/belief application and part affections/values/desires application... which is often the case, since the two are so intertwined. Then again, if we look for it, action/conduct applications are always closely connected to faith and affections also.

Anyway, the second one is more of a pure though/faith/belief application.

Also, for what it's worth, I'm not the first to see the Christian life as summed up in the three categories of orthodoxy, orthopraxy, and orthopathy. We hear much about the first two: believe right, do right. But Scripture is full of instruction regarding the third: desire right. (A sermon by John Hartog years ago at a pastors' conference really made it click for me, along with some passages I was working through at church at the time.)

 

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:

@Dan.
There's definitely some gray where interp and app overlap. I'll hopefully have time to post some examples later.
For now, where I draw the line in the case of thinking/belief is generally like this:

* Interp = the truth itself
* App = ways to bring my thinking into conformity with the truth.

In short, internal action is still action and "changing my mind" is an active response to truth .

Yes, I *think* I agree. 

* Interp = the process of observing what is true as revealed in Scripture.

*App = thinking about how my things in my life (including my thought life) correspond to God's commands and modifying my actions (including inner thoughts) accordingly.

 

-=-=-=-

Example: Disrespect

- We interpret the Word and observe that the Word calls for respect for God and His ways. That's universal truth: He is worthy of respect and honor.

- We apply that by saying, "In my heart / in my culture X is disrespectful, so I won't do X while I pray to God." That's thinking, but not about truth in a universal sense. and behavior.

Bert Perry's picture

...the error I've seen most often in both evangelical and fundamental churches is not to refuse to make an application at all, but rather to make a mad dash to it without doing the homework to connect, per Tyler, the ancient culture with our modern application.  A former pastor of mine expanded "principalizing" as steps of basic exegesis, context, putting it in context in Old and New Testaments, systematizing it in the whole Scripture, and then coming to an application.  

Put gently, I've been in situations like Tyler describes, wondering "where the .....did that come from?" and pondering when the fire and brimstone should rain down from Heaven to punish that brutalizer of God's Word.

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