Q&R corner provides responses to questions that readers may have about CCMBC and its work collaborating with provincial MB conferences in areas of spiritual health and theology, leadership development, mission, and organizational health in order to achieve the overall mission: “To cultivate a community and culture of healthy disciple-making churches and ministries, faithfully joining Jesus in his mission.” If you would like to contribute a question, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.
What is the difference between “community discernment” and “community hermeneutic”? What are the core elements of each process? Are there concerns about either practice?
Thanks, P., for your excellent question.
The New Testament addresses the individual person because it is the individual who must make a decision to turn in faith to Jesus, be baptized, and pursue growth in discipleship. However, the New Testament primarily addresses communities because following Jesus is a team sport—more like volleyball than tennis. This is why there is so much about loving “one another” (John 13:34-35; 15:12; Rom 12:10), submitting “one to the other” (Eph 5:21), and forgiving “one another” (Col 3:13). Almost all of the New Testament letters are written to communities, and almost all the “you” language could be better translated into “Texan” as “y’all.” The church is given the promise that gathering together and testing things is part of its calling (cf. Matt 18:15-20; 1 Cor 14:29).
This emphasis, however, is increasingly difficult in our culture—where there is so much distrust of others and especially institutions and their leaders—so people are wanting to only trust their own truth inside themselves. But the Bible highlights that when “two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” (Matt 18:20). It is in the group that we can “test the spirits” (1 John 4:1) which means discern between the “Spirit of truth and the spirit of error” (v.6).
All of this means that we are called to be team sport people and there are some key implications that come from this. The first is that while the Holy Spirit provides wisdom to individuals (cf. James 1:5), we believe that the group is most often better able to discern Holy Spirit wisdom than an individual on his or her own. We see this being modeled in Acts 15.
The second is that team sport people will necessarily need to practice mutual submission (cf. Ephesians 5:21) or the team will no longer be a team able to move forward together. If there is no willingness to defer to the wisdom of the group, we don’t have a team but simply individuals meeting together in a tentative cohort.
When it comes to communally discerning God’s will for individual believers and/or for church communities, we have two closely related but distinct processes. Each process fits well depending on the situation and questions being discerned.
Option One: Community Discernment is when the group comes together to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking directly to them. In community discernment, one person may sense a relevant Bible verse, a few words from a worship song, or an image from nature. As each person shares what they sense is “wisdom” on the question under discussion, the group in the end must sum up what they have heard. The goal is to get to the point where they can say together: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…” (Acts 15:28).
The main strengths of community discernment are that it can identify options we never considered, caution us about our posture in the whole process, and direct us away from the easiest option that we might find tempting. But there are also dangers with community discernment. Just because a community of praying Christians senses a direction doesn’t make that decision automatically Holy Spirit endorsed. The bottom line is that even a group of Christians can mishear the Holy Spirit. There are many times when the Bible seems to affirm individuals (think Daniel, Deborah, Esther, John the Baptist) who stepped out in radical faith and these individuals did not gather a community to check if they had heard God correctly. In some cases, community discernment may actually have interfered with this radical faith (e.g., see Acts 21:10-14 when Paul courageously went up to Jerusalem in conflict with the community discernment he received).
Option Two: Community Hermeneutic is when the group comes together to hear the voice of the Holy Spirit speak not directly to them but through Scripture because Scripture is “God-breathed” (cf. 2 Tim 3:16). In a community hermeneutic, Holy Spirit wisdom/guidance is not found primarily in the community of readers but in the text itself. The word hermeneutic is simply a fancy term for studying the Bible to understand what the authors were saying to their original intended audiences (e.g., ancient Israel, the New Testament Corinthian church, Timothy, etc.) and then asking how that message is intended by God to guide church communities practically at our particular stage of God’s Kingdom story. (For a more detailed explanation of community hermeneutics, see Doug Heidebrecht’s “Community Hermeneutics in Practice” available here.)
In a full-blown practice of community hermeneutic, we study the Bible deeply together, we engage the best of biblical scholarship, we listen to multiple voices who are faithfully living out these biblical convictions in their lives, and we seek agreement together about which biblical convictions will be foundational for our community. A community hermeneutic is primarily about listening to Scripture together. This means that we read the text together and we listen carefully to followers of Jesus inside and outside our family who are skilled in “exegesis.” We want to understand as well as we can what the biblical authors were saying to their various audiences. This is hard work but work that we must do. A community hermeneutic does not mean that we can just skip exegesis and sit in a circle asking each person—what does this text mean to you?
A community hermeneutic also involves the work of taking the conclusions of exegesis and seeking to live them out in our church communities far removed from the original audiences. In many cases there is little difference between what the biblical authors intended to communicate theologically and ethically to their audience and what they would presumably still communicate to us today. When the biblical authors spoke against murder, theft, and violence, we don’t have to go through a big hermeneutical process to decide if these still apply to our context. However, when it comes to the prohibition of tattoos (Lev 19:28), the command to practise footwashing (John 13:14-15), or the greeting of each other with a “holy kiss” (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20), we must do this hermeneutical work together. Community hermeneutic, then, involves the robust and prolonged engagement with Scripture together, seeking to understand it well, and then contextualizing the resulting truth to God’s church today.
The strength of a community hermeneutic is that the practice rightfully honours the reality of church as a team sport. We are not to be a bunch of individuals who on our own decide what the Bible says and doesn’t say about this or that theological and/or ethical question. Church is a team sport with Jesus as the Head Coach and church leaders as various types of Assistant Coaches (or better yet “Assistant Player-Coaches” since they are also in the game). This means that we come together, study the playbook together (listening also for the voices of all the others who have studied that same playbook before us), and submit ourselves to the conclusions of the group when we individually might disagree on the interpretation of the playbook. But a community hermeneutic is again not a guarantee of flawless biblical interpretation. While a community hermeneutic is a safeguard against wildly inappropriate individual readings of Scripture, a group studying texts together does not guarantee flawless interpretation either.
In my view, it is important to differentiate clearly between community discernment and community hermeneutic because they are not synonymous and interchangeable (Note: for examples where community discernment and community hermeneutic do seem to be used synonymously see these two almost identical documents by the Presbyterian Church [USA] available here and Mennonite Church USA available here).
The most important thing is to apply the appropriate process based on the question(s) being asked. If an individual is asking questions like: Should I quit my job and go back to school? Should I become part of the church’s leadership development program?–or a local church is asking: Should we start a ministry for single moms in our neighbourhood? Should we hire a new Associate Pastor? Should we pursue buying our own building rather than renting space?—then these are questions best suited for community discernment. These questions are very situation specific and are not addressed in Scripture. While aspiring to be an overseer is a noble task (cf. 1 Tim 3:1), exegeting this text carefully as a group would not move us any closer to knowing if this particular individual should or should not become an overseer. That requires group discernment directly from the Holy Spirit.
If, however, an individual is asking questions like: Should I continue to date a non-Christian who has expressed a complete lack of interest in Jesus? Should I sue this Christian from my church who isn’t paying their bill for the plumbing work I did at their house?–or a local church is asking: Should we give our blessing to Medical Assistance in Dying for some members of our community asking about it? Should we re-write our convictions about sexuality and gender?—then these are questions best suited not to community discernment but to a community hermeneutic. Scripture speaks to these questions in quite specific ways.
A second important thing is that a community hermeneutic necessarily must involve the whole community that the conclusions will impact. An unaffiliated local church, for example, can go through a community hermeneutic process and because of that process re-write its faith statements. This is one of the benefits and dangers of unaffiliated churches. There is an immediacy and openness to change. If that local church decides together after a careful study of Scripture that they want to express different convictions, they can rewrite their faith statements and from that moment on be guided by those new convictions. Obviously, this benefit is also a danger since the community has no larger accountability partner to dialogue with and express cautions if necessary. Local New Testament churches while not “affiliated” in a denominational sense were connected by means of shared apostolic leaders, mutual obligations, etc. Changes to a local church’s theological and/or ethical convictions would seemingly lead to some intervention by Paul or others (see Galatians 2).
For an affiliated local church, its community is larger than itself—so a community hermeneutic is necessarily larger as well. For our Canadian MB family, each of our local churches is affiliated with each other first provincially and then nationally. Our MB Confession of Faith is a recording of what our community has agreed on are the results of our community hermeneutic. If we decide that one or more of these convictions should be re-examined, then our larger community would have to do this together (See “Introduction to the MB Confession of Faith ” FAQ#8 for more on what this could look like).
If a local MB church wanted to limit its community hermeneutic only to the local group of believers there and this resulted in a desire to embrace convictions in conflict with the MB Confession of Faith, the congregation is essentially embracing the status of an unaffiliated church with the related benefits and dangers. This, of course, has impact on the larger “team” that we claim to be across the country.
In conclusion, I embrace both community discernment and community hermeneutic when clearly understood, clearly differentiated, and appropriately lived out within a denominational family. As noted above, while I see significant misuse of these terms today, I still believe that these processes must be part of our life together for God’s glory and the health of his body.
Thanks again, P., for your great question. I hope something here is helpful to you.
Ken Esau (National Faith & Life Director)