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Gathering around the Word to listen to the Spirit

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How do we collectively discern the Spirit’s direction when faced with new issues, difficult decisions, or conflicting opinions?

Over the years, the body of Christ has often emphasized different approaches to understanding the Spirit’s guidance. At times, the church aligned itself with the traditional beliefs and time-tested practices of previous generations. Sometimes, the church looked to the pastor/scholar to correctly interpret the Bible and proclaim what should be believed or done. At other times, the church listened to the prophetic voice in its midst for a fresh and relevant word of guidance.

How we answer the question about discerning the Spirit’s direction will say much about our understanding of authority in the church.

Early Anabaptists and community hermeneutics

The early Anabaptists, living among 16th-century Catholics, Reformers, and mystics, also faced this question: how is the church led by the Spirit? Anabaptists looked to the practice of New Testament believers and recognized that there was significant participation as the church community gathered around the Word of God to listen to the voice of the Spirit. Mennonite Brethren, over their 150-year journey, have intentionally lived out this Anabaptist conviction in various ways: from home Bible studies to congregational meetings to national study conferences. Mennonite Brethren believe God’s Spirit will lead them as they study Scripture and discern its meaning together. This process of interpreting the Bible together as the church is often referred to as community hermeneutics.

Among the passages Anabaptists appealed to in support of this practice was Matthew 18:15–20, which they called the “Rule of Christ.” Here, Jesus promises the church that whatever they bind or loose on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven. Jewish rabbis used the language of “binding and loosing” when, based on their interpretation of the law, they decided whether certain behaviour was either obligatory or permitted.

In a similar way, Jesus recognized the church would also be engaged in a process of discerning how to apply Scripture when it encountered new issues within the various contexts in which it would find itself. Jesus’ presence among believers enables them to agree together, to speak with “one voice,” as they seek to discern God’s will. This practice of discernment is set within the broader context of the reconciliation of relationships in Matthew 18, which highlights the relational dimension of any decision-making process.

Anabaptists also appealed to 1 Corinthians 14:29, which they called the “Rule of Paul,” as a model for their practice of community hermeneutics. Paul instructs the Corinthians to “let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said.” Even though prophets may claim to speak under the influence of the Spirit, this does not mean that they speak with an unquestionable authority. Rather, their words need to be discerned or tested by the gathered community in order to hear clearly what the Spirit is saying to the church. Paul encourages the church to hear every voice – everyone is free to participate.

Jerusalem Conference model

Mennonite Brethren also look to the Jerusalem Conference in Acts 15 as a concrete example of community hermeneutics in action. Following Paul’s mission to Asia, debate erupted within the early church whether Gentile Christians needed to become Jews first in order to be part of God’s people.

The church and its leaders gathered in Jerusalem in order to hear both sides of the dispute and openly discuss the issue. The silence of the church (Acts 15:12) following Peter’s recounting of his experience of the Spirit coming upon the Gentiles in Caesarea highlights both the absence of conflicting voices and the willingness to affirm what he was saying. The leaders together with the entire church agreed unanimously (Acts 15:22, 25) not to impose Jewish practices upon Gentile believers, something they discerned seemed good both to the Holy Spirit and themselves (Acts 15:28).

The presence of the Spirit among us

What emerges from this brief survey of God’s people gathering as a small group of believers, a single congregation, or an assembly of churches is the recognition of the unique presence of the Spirit among them. In these passages, we observe that when the body of Christ comes together, Christ, as Head of the church, is present by his Spirit in a way that does not happen with individuals. Therefore, the authority of the gathered members of the Christian body is very different from the authority of a knowledgeable teacher, designated leader, or insightful prophet because it reflects the unity of the Spirit. This authority comes into its own as the church arrives at a shared understanding of the Spirit’s leading.

The Spirit speaks to the church through the Word of God. However, the example of the early church in the New Testament portrays believers as active, not passive, listeners. Their model calls for the participation of the community in reading and studying Scripture together in order to discern what God is saying. We need to be talking and praying with each other when facing difficult questions or divergent opinions.

This involvement of the community in discerning the meaning and significance of the Scriptures challenges our tendency to view Bible reading and study primarily as a personal and private experience, which can then often lead to individual interpretations. Mennonite Brethren believe the same Spirit who inspired the Bible is also able to guide the community of faith in the interpretation of Scripture (Article 2, Confession of Faith).

Our conviction that the Bible is the authoritative guide in life and practice moves beyond a formal statement to a transformational reality when there is consensus within the community regarding how to interpret the Bible. Simply asserting the authority of the Bible does not resolve interpretive questions because all readings require interpretation. Rather, when the church arrives at a shared understanding of Scripture – after engaging in a process of study and discernment – we can recognize the leading of the Spirit in response to the questions we are facing. It is at this point that the church’s decision carries the “binding and loosing” authority referred to by Jesus.

Shared understanding

The process of arriving at a consensus as a church involves the participation of everyone in the community. Just as the Spirit gifts the church in a variety of ways in order that each person may contribute to the common good, so too we recognize how the strengths of each person’s perspective can contribute to the formation of a shared understanding.

Our openness to hearing each other requires both patience and humility, because we recognize that our own understanding of Scripture or the issue we are facing is limited by our personal journey, particular situation, and cultural context. As we actively listen to each other, we hear questions we never thought of and encounter perspectives that are new to us. While every voice needs to be heard, not every voice will necessarily carry the same weight since discernment entails more than simply counting votes.

The practice of community hermeneutics is not the promotion of a particular method of decision-making, but the call to gather as the church around Scripture to listen to the Spirit. How this actually happens will vary depending on whether it is a small group of believers, a congregation, or a conference of churches. Challenges abound, including pervasive biblical illiteracy in the church, the appeal and pressure for instant answers, and an uncritical embrace of individualism. It takes strong leaders to facilitate a healthy engagement in the process of community hermeneutics.

But what happens if we are just not able to arrive at a shared understanding of Scripture?

While this may happen irrespective of the approach we use, at the heart of the practice of community hermeneutics is a call to walk toward each other despite our differences, to lovingly engage with those with whom we disagree, and to patiently seek the unity of the Spirit. This in no way minimizes the complex nature of relationships or the reality of conflict; instead, it sets forth the expectation that the Spirit can still lead us as we continue to gather around the Word and remain willing to follow our Lord as faithful disciples.

Doug Heidebrecht, former director of the Centre for MB Studies, Winnipeg, is currently preparing to serve overseas with his wife Sherry.

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