Bible studies combine two of the most significant means of grace God has given us—His Word and community. I’ve been involved in some form of one almost without a break since I was seventeen years old. They’ve looked different, ranging from three to twenty people, sometimes exclusively male, sometimes mixed gender. At times I’ve been a leader, and at other times I’ve been an attendee. All of them have been helpful, and I would encourage every single person to be involved in one.
Book clubs are also wonderful. As an avid reader and lover of books, there are few things I enjoy more than that moment of realization that another has read the same thing as you, has opinions about it, was shaped by it in some way, and wants to discuss it. Book clubs also mitigate the risk of isolationism for introverts like me. Again, I would encourage people who love reading to be involved in a book club.
But Bible studies and book clubs are not the same thing. They serve different purposes, and they accomplish different goals.
If you want to see me get really riled up, tell me about your Bible study group that’s reading C. S. Lewis or J. I. Packer. That’s not a Bible study. Don’t get me wrong—I love both of those authors, and many more. But let’s not confuse the two. Below are three key differences.
Common Grace and Special Grace
Theologians have distinguished between two kinds of grace God gives us: common grace and special grace. The latter refers to the grace of God related to our salvation. It refers to the grace of the cross, the grace of an invitation to believe in Jesus and receive His death and resurrection on our behalf. It refers to the gathering of God’s people in the church, to prayer, to baptism, to the Lord’s Supper, and, significantly for this conversation, to the Bible.
The Bible contains the very words of God; in fact, it is the very Word of God. No other book or collection of books is even in the same category. Christians believe that, down to the very words included, it is exactly what God wanted it to be. “It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”
But there is another kind of grace—common grace. This is the kindness of God bestowed on all people, and it is not directly related to salvation. Jesus tells us God “causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:45). “The Lord is good to everyone;” the psalmist says, “his compassion rests on all he has made” (Psalm 145:9).
In books other than the Bible, we find common grace. It is a grace of God that He has gifted His image-bearers—believers and unbelievers—with the ability to beautifully compose words and sentences, to paint pictures that captivate our imagination. It is a grace of God that He communicates truth (lower-case “t”) through all kinds of books about all kinds of things by all kinds of authors. It is a grace of God that He has gifted people to write novels, stories of heroes and villains caught up in conflicts and battles greater than themselves, working toward resolution and some new and bright future. These stories point us to the greatest Story, the story of creation-fall-redemption-new creation.
Bible studies are an opportunity for us to explore and believe and grow in our relationship with God via special grace; book clubs are an opportunity for us to reflect on God and the world He has created through common grace.
The Makeup of the Group
This year, I started a book club. It’s made of six men and six women, and the rules are pretty simple. We meet once a month. Each person picks one book. On the night we discuss that book, he or she hosts, provides dinner, and leads the discussion. Any book is on the table as long as it a) is thought-provoking and b) doesn’t exceed the page limit.
But the makeup of this group is not the same as the makeup of my Bible study group.
My Bible study group is made up of about fifteen people, all members of our particular local church, with shared assumptions and (for the most part) opinions on secondary doctrinal matters. My book club, on the other hand, is made up of all Christians, but Christians with very different opinions on any number of doctrinal matters. In other words, I’m in a book club with a few people with whom I would not want to be in a Bible study.
Why would I create a group of this makeup? Because I don’t want to live in an echo chamber! I want to hear the ideas and opinions and thoughts and concerns of people outside of my theological “tribe.” I want to know how to relate to and empathize with people with whom I disagree. I didn’t invite them into the group so I could change them; I invited them into the group so I could learn from them. And while my Bible study certainly provides its own opportunities for the cultivation of empathy and mutual understanding, we come to that group with a much broader set of shared assumptions about God, the Bible, and a number of other truths. Those shared assumptions are fewer in my book club, which, interestingly, means the opportunity to gain knowledge might be greater. Which leads me to the third difference in book clubs and Bible studies.
Knowledge versus Spiritual Growth
This may seem too simple a dichotomy, and it probably is. But in the most basic terms, one of the best reasons to be in a book club is to gain knowledge. You can gain knowledge by reading classics like Dostoyevsky and Dickens. You can gain knowledge by reading in the fields of science and sociology. You can gain knowledge by reading professing Christian authors with whom you disagree on some very important matters. Indeed, the pursuit of knowledge is one of the main reasons to be in a book club.
A Bible study, however, isn’t aimed at gaining knowledge. That’s not the chief end. The goal of a Bible study is to love God more, and as a result, to obey Him more. Of course, our obedience to God requires that we gain knowledge, for we can’t love a God we don’t know; and at the same time, our engagement with other people in the effort to gain knowledge is one way that we can obey God (“Love the Lord your God with all your mind . . .”). In that sense, the chief end of man ought to be the ultimate end of your book club and your Bible study. But the penultimate end of your book club and your Bible study differ, and the means to get there differ as well.
The Good Gifts God Has Given Us
God has given us so many good gifts, including the Bible, books, and community. And the Bible and books ought to be received and enjoyed in community. But if we go about them as though they were the same thing, we’ll fail to get all we can out of one or both.
So Christian, get in a Bible study. And reader, get in a book club. But don’t go about them the same way. And please, don’t call your book club a Bible study.