The landscape of women’s Bible study writers and teachers has expanded significantly beyond Kay Arthur and Beth Moore in the past several years. Today, books and Bible studies by Priscilla Shirer, Lysa TerKeurst, Christine Caine and others occupy prime shelf space in Christian bookstores, and are frequent go-to choices for womens’ small group Bible studies. Many reasons for this growth are understandable. All of these women are articulate, engaging, fluent in the language of the Bible, and passionate about helping women grow in their understanding of Scripture and their relationship with the One it reveals. The study materials they publish are polished and thoughtfully constructed to keep women engaged and motivated in their study. But other commonalities, specifically, a hermeneutical approach that places women and personal circumstances at the heart of the story of Scripture, has popularized an approach to the understanding and appropriation of God’s Word that can be overly therapeutic and sentimental. This approach potentially sells women short in their understanding of who God is and how the gospel is good news only when He is at its center, instead of them.
In the past year, Jen Wilkin’s Bible study materials have begun to make their way onto the bookstore shelves and church tables next to the others. Wilkin certainly shares many notable traits with other popular women’s Bible teachers. She’s engaging, articulate, and knowledgeable. She’s published a bestselling book, has great fashion sense and rocks a great accent. But it’s her approach to Bible teaching that makes her materials noticeably different, in a way that has the potential to reap real and lasting fruit of a potentially better kind.
Wilkin’s inaugural study on the Sermon on the Mount (published jointly by Lifeway and The Gospel Coalition) is essentially a practical application of the principles she covers in her bestselling book, Women of the Word (published by Crossway). Its format follows the one that has been the foundation for the interdenominational study she leads in Flower Mound, Texas, attended each week by over 600 women, and heard by several thousands more online. Each week’s lesson is comprised of five days of homework intended to raise questions, small group discussion topics to help wrestle with questions, and a 25 minute video-based teaching time designed to resolve questions. In each week’s lesson, Wilkin works to center our study of Jesus’ most famous sermon in the context of the rest of Scripture. Her questions on each passage focus on three critical areas: what the passage says, what it means, and how it should change us. Change will flow from what a passage reveals about God’s character, how that revelation shapes our view of our self, and our necessary response. In her introductory comments, Wilkin encourages us to set aside our go-to commentaries or even study Bible notes and to “dwell in the I don’t know” as we wrestle with text directly. As an aid in this, the back section of the study contains a widely-spaced printing of the entire passage where you are encouraged to make notes and circle or highlight thematically pertinent words and phrases as the study progresses.
Guilty confession time – for the first few weeks I skipped the “make notes in the text” step, assuming it was kind of a rehashing of Kay Arthur’s Inductive Study method, which has blessed many women, but notosmuch me. In previous studies I’ve attended, too much time was spent meticulously counting the number of time a word like“the” appears in a passage, instead of questioning its significance (which sometimes wasn’t much). I assumed this would be another exercise in word-circling sound and fury, signifying nothing (other than that I had colorful proof I’d at least cracked open my book that week). Only two weeks into the study, I realized I had assumed wrongly, and I circled and underlined to significant purpose, all because of the way Wilkin walked us through each passage.
Few portions of Scripture have been taken out of context more often and used for more pragmatic and political ends than the Sermon on the Mount. But few portions of the Gospels are more challenging, convicting, and transformative in our thinking about the law of God and how it exposes our need for salvation. What better portion of Scripture, then, for Wilkin to help women study in the context of the rest of the Bible? In each week of the study, and especially in her video teaching, Wilkin walks us through the Beatitudes, the “ you have heard it said”s , the Lord’s prayer, challenging words on divorce, anger, false teaching and more, with equal parts grace and truth, grounding each section in both their historical context in the Old Testament and their explanation in the New Testament. By the end of the study, you understand Matthew’s concluding words that the crowds were astonished at Jesus’ authoritative teaching, because you feel like you’ve experienced the same yourself.
It won’t be a surprise, then, that I give this study my highest recommendation, with the hope that it is only the first of many that Jen Wilkin will publish for a wider audience. Should that happy event transpire, there are two changes that might help women to be blessed more deeply. In this first study, the amount of time it takes to do a day’s portion, and the type of questions asked, varies substantially. Women who are used to a more predictable, “devotional” style of study, especially those struggling with the time and energy constraints of young motherhood or long work hours, might find the thirty to forty minutes some days’ material requires a little daunting. Daily lessons that are more uniform in length and “sectionable” might serve women who can dedicate more, smaller portions of time to study over a week, instead of larger blocks of time each day.
The other, possibly more significant, struggle some women may experience is that, while this study does a masterful job of setting the context for the Sermon on the Mount in the rest of Scripture, what seems to be missing at times is a regular grounding of Jesus’ words on the mountain in the good news of Jesus’ finished work on the cross. The strategy of containing the study of additional Scripture passages to clarifying ones about commonly mishandled topics like judging one another, taking oaths, or false teaching, is helpful and certainly needed! But on some weeks when the focus of the lesson was on Jesus’ revolutionary and convicting “but I say to you” about anger or lust or forgiveness, being pointed more specifically and regularly to how our identity in Christ and union with him through repentance and faith grants us forgiveness and freedom from guilt over our failures would have been an extra encouragement.
It was concern about the potential for discouragement that gave me occasional moments of pause as I helped lead a group of women through this study over the last several months. To a woman, we were wrestling with all manner of relationship struggles and sin battles that we were losing as often as winning. (So, not that typical, I’m sure…) I worried that some of the women would grow disheartened as Jesus’ astonishing words about the actual depth of our law-breaking pierced our hearts week after week. But it was that very process of weekly wounding that produced incredible healing. In our increasing poverty of spirit, we were given assurance of the kingdom of heaven. In our mourning over our sin, we received comfort from one another that Jesus had covered it all. Our hunger and thirst for righteousness grew, and we were satisfied. The glorious irony of this study is that it produced the hope and assurance of God’s goodness that so many of the other studies aim to pursue, but not by being taught to read Scripture as a way to see our circumstances and experiences differently. We were taught to study Scripture as a means to see Jesus. It was in seeing Him more deeply that our hearts were changed, even as our circumstances sometimes stayed the same.
The measure of the success of this study and any that follow won’t necessarily be how many feet of shelf space Jen Wilkin’s materials eventually occupy at the nearest LifeWay store, but by how deeply the truths of God’s Word, as words that reveal the character and plan of God, embed themselves into our hearts and transform us.
I’ve often wondered if the reason Bible studies for women have all had such a similar approach and style is because few others have come along to offer something different. Jen Wilkin’s first study is the invitation to that different, deeper way of Bible study that I’ve been hoping for. The blessings you receive if you take that invitation up for yourself will be ones that will change you, not just for this life, but also for eternity.
-By Rachael Starke