The people of God hear God together
Believers Church Bible Commentary series
The Believers Church Bible Commentary (BCBC) series “brings the Anabaptist voice into the community of interpretation in a way nothing else can do,” says Gordon Matties, who serves as editorial council chair and MB representative.
Supported by 5 Anabaptist denominations (Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church USA and Canada, Brethren Church, Church of the Brethren, and Brethren in Christ Church), BCBC is the brainchild of Elmer Martens, MB Biblical Seminary president emeritus.
A unique format
At an inter-Mennonite meeting in the 1980s, Herald Press raised the fact that there are many commentaries on the market, but where is the Anabaptist voice? Martens agreed to edit such a series, and on sabbatical, pioneered a new way of formatting commentaries.
What makes BCBC unique is that it asks the larger questions of how the text contributes to the Bible as a whole and the Anabaptist church – historically and today, says Matties. Each volume includes a section called The Text in the Life of the Church. “Any writer will tell you it’s the hardest to write,” says Martens, “and every reviewer will tell you it’s the best part of the book.”
Columbia Bible College professor Michael Szuk calls BCBC “consistently well-written, accessible, concise and accurate; a person in the pew reading these commentaries would not walk away feeling confused but enlightened.” Szuk uses the topical essays at the back of each volume (such as Honour-shame” and “Universalism” in Romans) as springboards for discussion in his classes and care groups. “Women in John,” contrasting the way females “voice key confessions” with their relative silence in the other three gospels, is a starting place for class conversations on the New Testament’s portrayal of women.
Facing tough questions head-on
Vic Froese’s Sunday school class at Steinbach (Man.) MB discussed the BCBC volume on Joshua over five months last winter. As members of a peace church, the group of 10 adults kept returning to the question, “Why would God instruct people to wipe out the inhabitants of the Promised Land?”
“One thing we liked about Gordon Matties’s commentary is that he didn’t sidestep difficult questions,” says Froese.
“We talked about the relationships of settled people to aboriginal peoples and whether there are parallels to Joshua,” says Froese. “Gordon helped us see there are points of tension even within Joshua on how to relate to different cultures,” for example, the story of the woman who helped the spies and was welcomed into their community. Matties’ essays on genocide, idolatry and warfare addressed in more detail the questions the group was asking.
The Text in Biblical Context section of the commentary led Froese’s group to the New Testament for another take on how to relate to people outside one’s own community. “There’s a different kind of conquering with Jesus that forces us to look at our own hearts – rather than outside us – for our adversary,” says Froese.
Leaving an Anabaptist legacy
In his forthcoming BCBC volume on 1 & 2 Chronicles (due 2016), Gus Konkel makes analogies between the Chronicler’s spiritual legacy and the legacy of the Anabaptists from the time of the Reformation.
Konkel calls the commentary a tribute to his maternal grandparents, Mennonite refugees in 1926: “The faith they exemplified in hardship was the biggest influence on my life. I’d like to think they are thinking to themselves: a confession of our faith is going to have a lasting legacy.”
Sharing a communal grief
To write her commentary on Lamentations, Wilma Ann Bailey visited Oklahoma City following the 1995 bombing and Sri Lanka shortly after the war.
What she learned: “Often in tragedy, we think narrowly of what gets highlighted on the news, but not in terms of how many others are indirectly affected: their sense of security and feelings of loss,” says Bailey. “War doesn’t end when the treaty is signed.”
As they too faced starvation and rape, the people of Sri Lanka asked the same questions as the ancient Israelites: why did God allow our community to be destroyed?
“Lamentations teaches us it’s alright to express our sorrow,” says Bailey. Some Israelites blamed God for their suffering. The book’s diverse voices demonstrate that different people (rich and poor, male and female) experience the same tragedy differently. The lesson for the church as we walk alongside people and communities is “encourage them to express their sorrow and not think that it’s the last word.”
“There is joy too because the book of Lamentations represent the voices of survivors,” says Bailey. “It’s a testament to their faith because, in spite of it all, they were still clinging to God.”
By the church for the church
The temptation for most commentators is to write to impress their academic peers, says Martens, “but this series is for the church.”
“We believe in hermeneutical community,” says Martens. In the sharing of interpretation, not a single person on the editorial committee – not even the volume’s author – dominates. “It’s the people of God who hear God speak.”
Currently, the BCBC has released 28 volumes – a slow, communal process that began with the publication of Martens’ commentary on Jeremiah in 1986. The editorial council plans to complete the set by 2020.