Interview with Perry Stepp

By Brad Dupray

From an early age, Perry Stepp was captivated by the complexity of Scripture. “As a kid I would listen to my dad preach and I was fascinated with doctrine and how different parts of the Bible connected with each other.” He followed that path to a lifelong study of the Word culminating in the recent release of Reading Paul’s Letters to Individuals, a commentary on Philemon, 1 and 2 Timothy, and Titus (cowritten with Hulitt Gloer; Smyth & Helwys Publishing). Perry is an alumnus of Dallas (Texas) Christian College and holds a master’s degree from Lubbock (Texas) Christian University and a PhD from Baylor University, Waco, Texas. He is the dean of the School of Bible and Ministry at Kentucky Christian University in Grayson, where he is in his sixth year on the faculty.

What is the most basic objective of a biblical commentary?

There are different kinds of commentaries. There are technical commentaries, which focus on what the text meant when it was written and may not say anything about what the text should mean for us today. Then there are devotional commentaries, which focus on what the text means today; they don’t usually go into the historical meaning of the text. The commentary I wrote is somewhere in the middle. It’s technical, but it’s also interpretive. What I was trying to do was to help preachers and teachers and students understand what the text meant when it was written, and from that foundation to understand what the text means to us today.

It sounds like you’re looking to move a person from hermeneutic to life change.

Very much. The commentary contains a lot of application, and I pay a great deal of attention to how we should understand the life of ministry and the calling to ministry—what ministry is about. I don’t just say, ”Here’s what Paul and Timothy were going through,” I also say, “Here’s what the text says about how ministers and other Christian leaders should understand their vocation.”

How much do you rely on the work of other theologians in framing your thoughts?

Most of what I do begins with trying to be as historical as possible. So I do a lot more reading of what the people in the ancient world thought. I read a lot more of Josephus and Philo than I do Martin Luther, or (John) Calvin or (Thomas or Alexander) Campbell. The people who have had the biggest influence on me haven’t been the theologians I read. They have been my Bible college professors, like Mark Berrier at Dallas Christian College, Scott Caulley at Eastern New Mexico University, and Charles Talbert at Baylor. The example of how they orient themselves toward the Bible has had more influence on me than books or theologians I’ve read.

Do you try to approach the text completely from a scholarly level or does life experience and your Christian faith color how you draft your comments?

The life of a Christian scholar is spent in service to the church. My love for the church, my commitment to the church, is the foundation of what I do as a scholar. I’m trying to serve the church by helping the church understand the Bible better. That was something I learned from these professors; they are scholars, but they are scholars who love and serve the church.

Is it an advantage to bring a certain view of Scripture to the table, or do you try to set aside your preconceptions?

That’s a great question. One of the most beneficial things that postmodernism has taught us is how hard it is to be objective and how deeply our backgrounds and preconceptions color how we look at the Bible. The point for me is not to be completely objective, but to be aware of my own preconceptions.

How do you do that?

You try to be aware of where you’re coming from and always consider how that colors what you’re seeing—try to be fair with other points of view that you don’t agree with. Oftentimes the reason someone disagrees with how we read the Bible is that they’re coming from a completely different direction and background. Our heritage in the Stone-Campbell Movement is helpful here, because our heritage has attempted to simply look at the Bible and see what it said. Many other churches and denominations are more apt to go to creeds or systems than to go the Bible and try to work out what the Bible says about a particular issue or topic.

There is a certain freedom in going straight to the source.

When there are two ideas in Scripture that seem to be opposite each other, the tendency with creeds or in systematic theology is to pick one direction or the other. An example of this is the question of predestination vs. free will. What Stone and particularly Thomas Campbell seemed to be trying to do was to allow those tensions to coexist, saying the truth is bigger than a system or a formula. There is a model there for how the church can approach the Bible in a society that is anti-authority, anti-tradition, anti-absolute.

In addressing a post-Christian society, the answers don’t seem to come quite so simply, do they?

But there’s an opportunity there. The fact that we no longer live in a world that pretends to be Christian is an opportunity, because we’re surrounded by people who know they don’t know the story. In the early 20th century, everybody thought they knew the Bible, that they knew what Christianity was all about. It’s hard to tell people the story when they think they know the story; that’s what Fred Craddock’s book, Overhearing the Gospel, is all about. It’s hard to preach to people who have “heard it all” before. When the gospel is presented to people who are really listening to it for the first time, it is relevant and they’re more open to it than people in a world that pretended to be Christian, who had heard it all (but never really listened to it) before.

Is there a difference between scholarly study and study for Christian growth?

Yes. But they complement each other. It’s not like they’re opposites. That’s like trying to say that a person is healthy if her brain is healthy but her body is not. Scholarship gives the church a mind. Practical, day-to-day Christian living gives the church its heart.

Have you found your spiritual view of Scripture change as you studied the Bible from a scholarly level?

In some ways it has and in some ways my study has just reinforced where I started out. I always believed the Bible contained exactly what God wanted it to contain. I always believed the Bible was authoritative, trustworthy, and reliable. My studies have confirmed that. My scholarship has deepened and broadened these convictions.

Would you say your theological underpinnings have been challenged or strengthened?

They’ve been challenged and strengthened. One of the big key moments for me was realizing there have been Christians across the centuries who have thought things very different from what I think and yet their love for God was just as real. That brought me back to one of our foundational convictions: “We’re not the only Christians, we’re Christians only.”

What about your roots in the Restoration Movement? Have you been able to dig deeper than the foundation of your Restoration Movement background to determine if that foundation is firm?

I think so. I’m certainly spending my life as a scholar trying to work out a program that is informed by what Thomas Campbell and Barton Stone were trying to do. That is, to uncover what the New Testament writers taught and how can we bring that into our world.

Has there been a point where such intense study has caused you to question your faith?

There was a period at the end of my second year at Baylor when I went through a crisis of conviction. I really felt like my faith was under assault. It wasn’t because of Baylor, necessarily; it was because of the things I was reading and the things I was wrestling with. I went to one of my professors and talked to him and he basically told me it was something that everyone who wants to be a scholar has to go through. He let me fight my way through it. Today, I am a professor to undergraduate students. When my students come to me with those kinds of questions, I am a lot more directive and a lot more deliberate about helping them see the reliability of the Bible. On a doctoral level, however, my professor at Baylor may have felt it wouldn’t have integrity if he ended up just telling me what to believe.

What has your study taught you about the way we “do church?”

Our temptation is always to baptize our traditions, to think that our traditions are given to us by God, and blessed by God, whether they really are or not. It is vital that we always be looking to the Bible and refining our understanding of how the Bible critiques our tradition.

What are some issues the church needs to look at again?

One of the issues is how we deal with women in leadership in the church. How we deal with other denominations and other religions would be another example. An even more difficult issue is how the church deals with homosexuality. That’s an issue where our traditional answers, “Love the sinner hate the sin,” don’t seem terribly satisfying. I don’t know what the perfect answer to that question is. I know the church cannot compromise what the Bible says, but I also know that issue is not going away. We have people all around us who are struggling with sexual orientation and want to know God’s love as they struggle. Do we have something to say to them?

How do we work toward unity with denominational churches when some issues are so divisive?

Some people’s attitude seems to be that any effort toward cooperation, getting along across denominational lines, is compromise. Well, I don’t think getting along with people is necessarily a compromise. We need to find the things we agree on and love each other around the things we disagree on and trust that we’re not saved because we understand everything. We’re saved because we’ve entrusted ourselves to a God who saves sinners and who is so much bigger and more gracious than we can comprehend.

Brad Dupray is senior vice president, investor development, with Church Development Fund, Irvine, California.

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