In my experience, one of the weaker areas in the Church today is biblical discipleship and mentoring within the church. Shortly after my conversion in 1994, I was invited to join Bible Study Fellowship (BSF). BSF is an ecumenical, non-profit organization that offers a systematic study of the Bible for women and men. Originally, it was set up for women only, but men's groups were added later, and now co-ed groups are available. It is a para-church organization overseen by a Board of Directors, and the Executive Director of BSF has always been a woman.
BSF has a four-fold approach to Bible study: Daily questions, Discussion Group, Lecture, and Notes. I really enjoyed the format, and our local group had a wonderful Teaching Leader. I stayed with the program for a number of years and even served in leadership, but after the birth of our second child, I was overwhelmed with all of the duties I was trying to juggle (career, home-life, church, PTA, etc.); so to help simplify my life, I withdrew from BSF.
At the turn of the 21st century, my departure from BSF left a Bible-study void in my life that I tried to fill with less rigorous options. I started participating in the Ladies' Bible study groups offered at church, and I can say that they were usually more detrimental to my spiritual growth than not--from Beth Moore who claims that God speaks directly to her to Henry Blackaby who says that I might miss God's will in the mundane choices of my life.
After a decade of thinking I was being spiritually fed, I finally realized that I was incredibly malnourished as I began to study reformed theology. However, finding reformed resources for personal Bible study is not an easy task; there are just not many options available. Therefore, I decided to join BSF again. But unfortunately, what I thought as a new Christian was sound, biblical teaching was not.
It has been almost a year now since I left BSF for the second time. The first time I left for pragmatic reasons; the second time I left for theological concerns.
This post will be the first of a multi-part look at BSF. First, I'll finish up this post with a quick look at the legitimacy of para-church organizations, and then I will discuss the theological issues and current organizational practices of BSF.
For many reasons, I do not agree with most (if not all) aspects of Mark Driscol's ministry, but he does have a good definition of a para-church ministry: "Taking the gospel to the culture without the church."
In Brian Schwertley's essay on "The Great Commission," he says:
"Para-church ministries do not have the authority to publicly preach, baptize, administer the Lord’s Supper or administer church discipline...The para-church organizations are not founded upon Scripture, but upon pragmatism. The responsibility to disciple the nations rests with the church and no one else."
The establishment of the New Testament church in the Book of Acts was to further the preaching and teaching of the gospel for the glory of God. Therefore, para-church ministries, such as BSF, should be under the authority of a local church and submissive to the instruction of a pastor/elder (the requirements for an elder in 1 Timothy & Titus both show that this role in the church is for men only). Without the accountability of a local church to give biblical counsel and guidance, a para-church organization is solely influenced by those in charge which is not the biblical model that we see in scripture. Therefore, BSF is is not a biblical ministry model that should be teaching and preaching the gospel because it is not under the authority of a particular church and it is run by a woman, (Matt. 28:16; 1 Tim. 2:11-12).