As Mennonite Brethren, we say we are people of the Book. If this is true, some natural questions ought to come to our minds. Questions like “Who gets to interpret the text and with what tools?” and “How do we discern if our interpretation is correct?” or “What happens when there is a divergence of opinion?” These are all questions of deep importance because the interpretive lens we bring to Scripture will influence our process, our preaching, and our disciple-making in the life of the church.
An introduction to the process of community discernment
Early Anabaptists emphasized that “the congregation was where Scripture should be interpreted, rather than the university, the preacher’s study or the mind of the individual.”¹ They linked the process of community hermeneutics very closely to other core theological tenets such as the priesthood of all believers and an understanding of the person and work of the Holy Spirit.
Community discernment has also been integrated with our Anabaptist emphasis on a hermeneutic of obedience. We interpret the text not to get the “right” answer, but to live faithfully to God’s call on our lives both individually and corporately. A community hermeneutic, then, is a unique lens – an approach to the text that maintains a high view of the authority of Scripture while at the same time emphasizing obedient discipleship.
This becomes particularly helpful in matters that are non-confessional in nature and upon which a variety of diverse but still historically orthodox opinions is possible. An example of this process from our recent history as a Canadian MB family might be the board of faith and life’s (BFL) resolution on Women in Ministry Leadership (WIML) which the national gathering affirmed in Calgary in 2006. In the process that led up to that event, we gathered together and studied Scripture. We attempted to listen to one another and to seek unity (which is different from unanimity). In Calgary, the BFL proposed that “on this non-confessional issue…the Conference bless each member church in its own discernment of Scripture, conviction and practice to call and affirm gifted men and women to serve in ministry and pastoral leadership.”²
Implicit in this resolution is an invitation for congregations to do the work of discerning Scripture together. The BFL did not mandate a position but extended an invitation to each local church to gather around the text and ask “What are the implications for our life and witness?” As the BFL itself discovered in the lead-up conversations, this kind of dialogue is hard and long work. No matter the topic of study, community hermeneutics is a time- and energy-intensive exercise.
In our own context at Jericho Ridge Community Church, the elders team engaged the entire congregation in a three-month process of teaching, listening, discussing, reading, and reflecting back to one another what we were learning around the topic of women in leadership. There were public forums, small group conversations, sermons, online communities, and more. As leaders, we asked for an intensive season of study and commitment from our people in their personal and our corporate handling of Scripture, and they rose to the challenge.³
One of the things we discovered was that it is the work of immersing ourselves in the text and investing in relationships that shapes and forges us together as a community. This is why study conferences are such an important part of our life together as Mennonite Brethren in Canada. When the gathered community comes together to study the Bible in a way that is harmonious, humble, and loving (1 Peter 3:8), it can be wonderfully transformative.
But how do you know if a community hermeneutic is at work?
Some of the things we are learning in our local church from our practice of community-rooted hermeneutics might best be phrased as questions, so you can discern if community hermeneutics is at work in the places you find yourself:
• How do we make and communicate decisions?
A community hermeneutic presumes a community that is open to the leading of the Holy Spirit. In Acts 15:1-35, the early church faced a challenge that could have easily split it down ethnic and interpretative lines. As a solution, the apostles could have simply made an executive decision based on their own understanding of Hebraic history and culture. But they were willing to do the hard work of listening to each other and to the Spirit. We would do well to model some of our decisions more closely on this framework. For example, when faced with a decision, do we spend more time studying extant models and methodologies than Scripture itself? Do we filter our decisions through Scripture or merely add Bible verses as an appendix to our decision making?
• How do leaders prepare and preach sermons?
How the text is approached and presented is a litmus test of a community hermeneutic. To allow the community to shape his thinking, a friend of mine posts his sermon topics and difficult questions on Facebook. Having an orchestra of people doing the teaching so that we are hearing from the community and avoiding personal theological hobby horses is another safeguard. One can also learn a significant amount by listening to the application that is called for in the preaching of the Word. Is the application always for an individual, or is there a call to the congregation to think or live or act live differently as a whole?
• Are we willing to suspend judgment and genuinely submit ourselves to the text?
When we came to study the question of Women in Ministry Leadership, our elders articulated to the congregation that among both biblically sound scholars and wise church leaders, there are differing views on the issue. We called people to a spirit of humility and asked everyone to suspend prior judgment as we moved into this process – not labelling those who came to different conclusions as possessing inadequate biblical knowledge or being spiritually immature.
We called people to remember their commitment to live out the biblical injunctions of love, peace, and mutual edification (Romans 14:13, 19), regardless of the outcome. This again is hard work, but it is necessary if we are to move beyond personal experiences or simply quoting our favourite theologians to “prove” our points. When we are willing to be wrong or to live with those whose convictions differ from our own, and when we are willing to have our presuppositions challenged, we have moved to the place where we are genuinely open to allow the Spirit and our community to shape our thinking both individually and collectively.
• How do we approach areas of theological ambiguity or potential disagreement?
One of the most common and more striking comments that we encountered in our dialogue was the simple but ambiguous phrase “but the Bible says.” Many were quick to wonder if a dialogue of this nature wasn’t a ploy of revisionist theology, the proverbial slippery slope argument. But as we pressed into this, we came to understand that stringent biblicism can be pathology rather than a genuine appeal to the authority of Scripture. It can highlight the tendency for people to atomize Scripture and to pick and choose their favourite verses to support their ideas instead of being honest about their interpretative lens.
What’s the big deal?
At the end of the day, our call is about seeing people come to faith in Jesus, not about winning a theological battle or designing or deploying an airtight congregational discernment process. Community hermeneutics ought to lead us deeper into relationship with Jesus and with one another.
My sense is that revisiting our historical emphasis on community hermeneutics might assist us in finding our way through the many complex and potentially divisive theological issues we currently face as Mennonite Brethren in Canada. If we continue to exhibit a posture of openness to having our larger community of faith sharpen and shape our own theological reflection as individuals and as congregations, then we can gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the identity and mission that unites us.
1. From a paper presented at the Anabaptist Theology Forum, based on Stuart Murray’s book Biblical Interpretation in the Anabaptist Tradition (Pandora, 2000). The paper is online at http://www.anabaptistnetwork.com/node/247.
2. For more on the rationale behind this resolution and a word on its implementation and implications, see http://www.mbconf.ca/home/events_and_conferences/learning_together/women_in_ministry_leadership/board_of_faith_and_life_women_in_ministry_
3. For more information on Jericho Ridge’s WIML process, visit http://www.jerichoridge.com/resources/women-in-ministry-leadership.