In scripture there is a metaphor for learning the word of God and for growing in faith. It’s a food metaphor, that the Bible is like food that sustains and grows a Christian. The Bible speaks in terms like this:
Deuteronomy 8:3 And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.
And this is quoted by Jesus in:
Matthew 4:4 But he answered, “It is written, “‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
1 Peter 2:2 Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation—
Finally, it’s not a coincidence that there is symbolism about eating Christ like there is the metaphor about eating the scriptures (after all, Jesus is “the Word” in John 1:1ff). Jesus says of Himself:
John 6:51 I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
Christians have run with the concept and developed the idea in good ways that fit with scripture. I believe in the Salvation Army we make use of a devotional called “Our Daily Bread.” Plenty of worship songs contain similar concepts of Jesus as the bread of life, or the sustaining power of the scriptures as well (“This is the Air I Breathe” by Michael W. Smith, for example).
When someone is having difficulty with their home church though, they might say “I’m just not being *fed* there.” What they mean is that they aren’t receiving instruction from scripture. My perception is that this is somewhat more common among young adults, though I wouldn’t doubt plenty of adults would have issue with their church if they “weren’t being fed.” Unfortunately, the answer that comes back to these people is often: “feed yourself.”
I think those who would use the phrase “feed yourself” in response are resting on a foundation that says the individual is responsible for their own spiritual growth and development. The suggestion, through this metaphor, is that if your pastor or the leaders in your church are not feeding you the Word of God, don’t find a new church – just go read it for yourself for your own growth. But this ignores two significant teachings from scripture.
1. The Church is made to grow in Christ
The individual is not solely responsible for their own growth. They have a part to play for sure, but it is the natural function of a healthy church to teach the (full canon of) scripture to its people. Look here:
Eph 4:11-16 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
1 Tim 3:1-3 The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.
Titus 1:7-9 For an overseer, as God’s steward, must be above reproach. He must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.
2. The Gospel is clear – the Christian life is not so clear
The second failure of the “feed yourself” answer is that it doesn’t even follow the metaphor it is built on. If new converts (or even old converts!) are seeking more information and depth in their faith, telling them to feed themselves is like telling a child to cook himself a meal. You could leave a teenager alone for weeks and even they would struggle to make food. But for some reason some people don’t carry the metaphor that far. They think spiritual children can cook up their own life-sustaining meals from scripture, and I think I might know why.
It’s called Scottish Common-Sense Realism, and the more I study this concept the more concerned I am about its influence on the Salvation Army. I’ve only recently dug into the idea, but it’s essentially a common-sense philosophy to life, and to scripture as well. Some proponents of this philosophy in history thought that the Bible itself was so obvious and clear that one could simply apply common sense to it, read it, and understand everything by careful attention. They didn’t think they needed anything else to understand the Bible! They went so far as to say (quite ridiculous) things such as:
Campbell: “I had endeavoured to read the scripture as though no one had read them before me.” (Campbell doesn’t see a need for anything else, like the works of other Christian writers, for example, to help him understand the Bible.)
Tolbert Fanning: “the scriptures fairly translated need no explanation.” (Fanning is essentially saying that if it’s a good translation, the words themselves need no other explanation!)
You see I think this Common-Sense Realism is still very much alive. A concept like “Feed yourself” is evidence of this. Some believe the Bible is so clear that a child in the faith could simply read it, and understand everything necessary for spiritual growth. See the distinction I made there – I’m talking about spiritual growth and theological development. It’s important to distinguish that from the Gospel itself. I believe (and I know stories) of people that have simply read the Bible and come to place faith in Jesus. The Gospel is certainly that simple and clear in scripture, but the rest of our spiritual development is not quite this clear.
There are many reasons for this, but the obvious one is that the Bible was written very long ago. There are cultural aspects to scripture that affect the meaning of passages in ways we might not expect. There are also concepts, metaphors, and symbolism that we may misinterpret as modern readers. This is again similar to a child trying to cook with spices and herbs without an understanding of the basics of food preparation. It’s a culinary disaster waiting to happen.
Ultimately there is a greater problem than people using a phrase like “feed yourself” when others say they aren’t learning or growing in their church. The phrase is a symptom of an unhealthy church. The first point above highlights that the church is made to grow together in Christ. Furthermore it is the responsibility of the pastor to teach (and the ability to teach is a qualification for pastoral ministry).
If we’re stooping to tell our people to feed themselves, we’ve already failed as a community and as a church. To return to our metaphor one more time, the only scenario in which I can imagine an adult telling a child to feed themselves for any extended period of time is when the child is being abandoned. I think this is what many young adults feel when they don’t receive the Word of God accurately taught. They feel spiritually abandoned. When they voice their concern and the reply is “feed yourself,” can you really blame them for finding adoption somewhere else?
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I wanted to end my article there above on that bit of a cliffhanger, but I can’t. I gotta give some sunshine here.
There are some of you reading this who care about the word of God. You know it. You study it. You dig into it to really know what it means. You’ve internalized it, and you share it naturally. Maybe you’ve even gone to school to study the Bible. You, friend, are like a chef, and I want you to know that you are not alone and that people, real people in the Salvation Army need you. I hold on to the promise in Ephesians that God has given some to be pastor-teachers in our church(es). Hold on to this promise as well.
Finally, hone your gift. Be creative. Cook a culinary masterpiece from the scriptures themselves – enough to feed an army. I’m gonna try, and there’s room in the kitchen for more.