By Sara Wenger Shenk
I am often asked, “Where does AMBS stand [on this or that issue]?” My response, with some elaboration, is, “We stand on the Word of God.”
The question is reaching for a declaration about conviction. What ethical ground have we staked out on a matter in dispute? How have we differentiated from those we disagree with? When key theological convictions are threatened, can we be trusted to hold our ground? Are we on the right side of where the battle lines have been drawn up?
In this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, my response — we stand on the Word of God — hearkens back to Martin Luther, who is reported to have declared, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God … . Here I stand. I can do no other.” Case closed!
Except it isn’t. In a face off with a corrupt pope, appealing to individual conscience is a powerful corrective — particularly a conscience “captive to the Word of God.” But, as we all know, individual conscience can also be corrupted by fear, pride, greed, self-righteousness and, in Luther’s case, can be used to persecute and kill Anabaptists. Both centralized power by papal authority and an individualistic take on the Word of God can be horribly abused. History is rife with examples.
I grew up among a people who knew how to take a stand on Scripture and who shared deep convictions about standing strong in the face of persecution, loving enemies, witnessing boldly about Jesus’ radical love, and choosing to die rather than deny our faith — exemplary qualities so needed in this day of corrupt politicians, hate-filled racism, prejudice and fear.
Yet that revolutionary faith got coded into our DNA in sometimes strangely aberrant forms. Taking a stand, at least for the Swiss/Germans among us came to mean enforcing strict rules to keep ourselves pure, excluding the wrong kind of people from communion, writing guidelines to control who’s in and who’s out, and using proof texts to make sure we’re all crystal clear on what the Bible says, usually in King James English. Standing strong often meant splitting off from others less right or faithful than we were.
But what if that deeply ingrained DNA to stand strong was truly held captive by the Word of God? What if rather than using a litmus test to judge whether other people are Bible-believing Christians, we gave up our idolatrous certainties about what the Bible says and experienced humility and a little trembling before the Lord, who asks: “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? See, I am against the prophets … who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets … who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says the Lord.’ See, I am against those … who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them … ” (Jeremiah 23:29-32).
The sad reality is that most of us don’t know how to read the Scriptures well or with true understanding of what they reveal of the Word of God. We also tend to cluster in groups of people who read them more or less like we do — people who look a lot like us and share prejudices that have stiffened into convictions. In tragic ways, the Bible —which is often referred to as God’s written Word —has become a battle ground on which we disable and maim each other.
When persons ask me, where does AMBS stand on human sexuality, the authority of Scripture, women in leadership, peace and justice, immigration, climate change, white supremacy, the president — you name it — my response is: Come, learn to read the Scriptures with us — prayerfully and skillfully, with humility and awe. Learn to read the Scriptures well — listening to their many voices from varied contexts, times, languages, genres and perspectives. Learn to listen to the Spirit in a community of persons from diverse contexts who, despite our differences and because of our differences, want to root ourselves in the Word of God and grow in Christ.
When I answer as I do — We stand on the Word of God — am I simply avoiding the real intent of the questions: Are you progressive or conservative on same-sex relationships? Do you believe in biblical authority? Can one be rich and a follower of Jesus? Does the Bible’s teaching on divorce matter anymore? Is killing a person ever justified?
Rather than avoiding the question, I am reframing it. Any answer to the question about where we stand ethically must be grounded theologically in the Word of God, which we never capture or pin down for all times, places, circumstances — the Word of God, which always transcends any particular time or culturally bound interpretation. We have often failed as Mennonites and Christians to truly be held captive by the Word of God. We can do better. And it won’t be by taking sides or taking a stand on idolatrous, truncated certainties about what the Bible says.
At AMBS, students and faculty are across the theological spectrum on many issues, including sexuality. We invite everyone, whether so-called conservative or liberal, to submit pre-formed convictions to be tested by persons with different convictions and by the deep wisdom from our faith traditions and the best scientific and experiential data available — all of which we examine under the light of the Scriptures. Together, as a learning community, using the best interpretive tools available, we call on the Holy Spirit to bring us from the different places we stand, closer to each other and to Jesus Christ, who as the Word of God, showed us what it means to be fully human.
I offer a story to illustrate how this works at AMBS, from a Greek Readings: Synoptic Gospels course, as told by Mary Schertz, retired professor of New Testament: “Synoptics this morning was very fruitful. We were discussing the Transfiguration. We had just about every opinion laid on the table at one point or another. There was good will; everyone was taken seriously by everyone. And we had a very good time and came to some interesting and important conclusions, namely that Scripture is the stabilizing bar as we walk the tightrope of life. We were talking about falling back on faith as a safety net and then worked our way around to the metaphor that seemed more satisfying — Scripture as the balancing bar. It moves. It has flexibility. It has an allowable range that takes into account variables in body weight, skill, air flow, circumstances, etc., but there are also givens and fundamentals that simply have to be taken seriously in order not to fall.”
Taking a stand on the Word of God means that in humility, we offer an invitation:
- Come, grow in awe and a little trembling before the Lord, who asks: “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29-32)
- Come, grow into leaders who kneel before God, acknowledging our prejudice and blindness even as we do our best to name convictions on sexual practice, biblical authority, peacemaking, jubilee justice … .
- Come, grow into leaders who recognize that one’s own reading of Scripture is fallible and requires a rich diversity of voices to more fully illuminate the Word of God.
- Come, learn what it means to truly be captive to the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures, in nature, in worship, in the body of Christ and above all, in Jesus Christ.
- Come, grow into leaders with conviction who will stand up for Jesus and Jesus’ jubilee gospel (Luke 4:18-19) in personal, congregational and public spaces.
As an Anabaptist learning community, we are committed to a (trans)formational reading and interpretation of the Scriptures with the guidance of the Holy Spirit in community. We stand on the foundation that is Jesus Christ, about whom it was said: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NRSV).
Photo: Members of the AMBS community pray in the Chapel of the Sermon on the Mount using Take Our Moments and Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book, which provides space for communal reflection on Scripture. (Credit: Peter Ringenberg)