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brad carr: all scripture is useful . . . really?

One of the things I noticed growing up in the church, and have continued to notice ever since, is the tendency of many pastors / churches / leaders to have a “canon within the canon.” What I mean is that we tend to hug the parts of the Bible that we are more familiar with, and more comfortable communicating.

This is especially ironic among strongly evangelical churches such as my own. We make a great deal of noise (quite rightly, I think) about verses such as 2 Tim 3:16, “All Scripture is God-breathed.” But while we may hold strongly to that belief, we don’t always hold as strongly to what the rest of the verse states, “… and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.”

Really? All Scripture is useful? Do we really believe that? Do we honestly think that Numbers or Zephaniah or Revelation are as useful for our lives and the lives of our people as Psalms or Mark or Romans? Or do we end up with an “Animal Farm” view of the Bible – “All Scripture is useful . . but some parts are more useful than others.”

What creates this canon within a canon?

I can think of a handful of reasons off the top of my head:

  1. We don’t feel as competent in some parts of Scripture (I mean, if you were choosing between the gospel of John or Revelation, which would you choose?).
  2. We minimise the importance of the Old Testament to our faith (because we are ministers of the new covenant, we often don’t quite know what to do with the laws and regulations of the older covenant).
  3. We get intimidated by the cultural and historical chasm between certain parts of the Scriptures and our world today (to use John Stott’s metaphor of preaching as bridge-building, it feels like the span between Leviticus and our world is just too big).
  4. We’re unsure of how to apply some parts of the Bible to our congregations (how exactly do you apply oracles of woe from the prophets, or holy war narratives from Joshua and Judges, to dentists, lawyers and homemakers today?).

I’m sure others could add to the list. All of those reasons are very real, and make the challenge of preaching from the lesser known parts of the Bible even more challenging. And yet if what 2 Timothy 3 says if true, that all of Scripture is useful for teaching and rebuking and training God’s people, then I would argue that it’s worth the effort to delve into the lesser known parts of the Bible. Otherwise our congregations are missing out on learning significant lessons from whole sections of Scripture.

A few years ago our church elders decided to venture into deeper waters and allowed me to try my hand preaching through the book of Numbers. It was an exciting ride, into a book I had never studied in-depth or taught publicly. At the beginning of the series, I asked for a show of hands of how many people had heard any teaching from Numbers. In an audience of around 120 adults, no hands went up. Yet by the end of our journey with Israel through the wilderness, we had developed a far deeper appreciation for this often ignored narrative. We saw ourselves in Israel’s complaints and inconsistencies; we were challenged to have the faith and trust of Caleb and Joshua; and we were reminded in a new way how faithful God is.

Oh, and we learned that even Numbers can be useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.

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Brad Carr is the husband of Rochelle, father of three boys, and lead pastor of BotanyLife Community Church in East Auckland, a church they helped to plant in 2004. Brad is a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary and a contributor to the One Step Ahead preaching course.


  1. Mark Maffey says:

    Hi Brad

    Whilst I agree with your premise, I wonder if we become too fearful to take on some books? Really? To comment on your point “All Scripture is useful? Do we really believe that? Do we honestly think that Numbers or Zephaniah or Revelation are as useful for our lives and the lives of our people as Psalms or Mark or Romans?” We are just starting in our Church a series on Revelation Chapters 1-3. I would argue that John’s letters to the seven churches are as relevant if not more relevant than other chapters in other books. I have been given the slot on the church at Pergamum, and as I have begun the process of unpacking the passage I can see some important points which will directly speak into peoples lives.

    Another book that I have been engaging with is Nehemiah, another book that does not get enough airplay. Whilst I agree that we do end up with a Canon within a Canon, by doing this are we adding to peoples biblical illiteracy, and perhaps our own? Perhaps as Proverbs 3 calls us to “Lean not on our own understanding, but seek God’s will in all we do, and he will direct our paths.”

    1. Brad Carr says:

      Hi Mark
      Thanks for the comment. I think we’re agreeing with each other, aren’t we? I think we do add to people’s biblical illiteracy when we ignore large chunks of the Bible. The tendency seems to be assuming that certain better-known books are more “relevant” than others, when I would argue that if all Scripture really is useful, then all of it is relevant – some parts just may take more work than others!

      Great to hear your church is preaching in Revelation.


  2. Miriam says:

    Thanks for your post Brad.

    As a student of the Old Testament, this is a topic that really gets me going – because SO MUCH of the OT that could indeed be useful, relevant, and all those 2 Tim things is SO OFTEN ignored, sidelined, or simply put into the too hard basket.

    I’m in favour of bringing lesser known texts to attention in churches and preaching, but I think there’s a caution that needs to be exercised here as well. Many of those “too hard” texts are sidelined or ignored for good reason – they’re messy, ugly, and oftentimes downright abhorrent; not to mention X-rated (think Judges 19, Leviticus 20, Psalm 137, Ezekiel 16, Lamentations 2 etc etc). As such they require much care in explication and interpretation. This is a thought I’ll be following up when I write my post later in the year: how might we as ministers of the Word – a Word we claim is God’s Own Word – handle these “handle with care” texts in teaching and preaching?

  3. Brad Carr says:

    Hi Miriam
    I share both your excitement and caution. I’m with you on how wonderful the OT is, and how much we miss out by ignoring big chunks of it. But you’re right – there are definitely hard pieces in there as well.

    I think the answer is to preach them well, acknowledging the hard stuff, being real when we struggle with a text, etc. However, if we have questions or issues with passages like those, so do the rest of our congregations, and we’re better to walk through those passges with them, explaining and interpreting so they can understand them better.

    Last year we preached through the book of Judges, and my final sermon in the series was on Judg 19-21 (I think that’s one literary unit). It was tough to talk about, and we warned people ahead of time that it was in some ways an R-rated sermon! But I think people appreciated the fact that we tackled this hard story, especially in explaining how it fitted into the overall plot of Judges.

    I think we need to tackle the tough passages – but defintiely with care and sensitivity.


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