I am pleased to post this piece from Dr. Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education and director of the AMBS Church Leadership Center. Her recent presentations to the Constituency Leaders Council of Mennonite Church USA (which are linked at the end) received widespread and heartfelt appreciation. - Sara Wenger Shenk
Since our founding, we Mennonites have claimed the Bible as the central source of authority for our faith and life. The Bible, we have said, is how we learn about God, and most importantly, about Jesus Christ, the One whom we together seek to follow.
Yet these days it seems many of us are not spending a whole lot of time with the Bible. “The estrangement of many North American Mennonite Christians from the Bible—their sense that they know the book, that it’s over-familiar or irrelevant, and their captivity to American ills of individualism, consumerism and over-busyness—all of these make it hard to indwell the ancient text and make it life-giving today,” writes Alan Kreider.
And when it comes to difficult conversations like we’re having about sexuality, some among us have little hope that Scripture can be our guide. Because the Scripture has been misused and co-opted for political purposes and made into a tool of oppression, they say we should steer clear of it in discerning difficult matters.
Others among us are quick to claim the Bible is on their side in the sexuality debates. They quote the Bible readily. They will tell you something like, “I go with the Bible on this one.” This is code for, “There will be no discussion of inclusion or same sex covenants in my church. I know what the Bible says. Case closed.”
Who, really, is studying the Bible?
My question is, when and with whom are we actually studying the Bible? When are we engaging in in-depth Bible study in our own congregations? In what settings are we looking not at just one issue or one set of texts, but many texts, or better yet, whole biblical books, over extended periods of time? In what contexts are we taking advantage of the many scholarly tools of interpretation now available to pastors and lay people alike, tools that can shed a great deal of light on Scripture?
And where are we doing this in congregational contexts that are politically, theologically, and culturally diverse, like the real body of Christ? Where are we coming together, week in and week out, to keep on listening and talking, challenging and understanding, the Scripture and each other? Are most of us not doing this at all or even semi-regularly, as recent studies suggest?
“The Bible provides the stories that have always given identity to the Christian community,” writes Frederick Borsch. “These stories and related materials are the base data and primary theological core of Christian community…. It is the one ‘language’ shared by Christians of different races, cultures, and economic backgrounds.”
Following Borsch I would suggest that when we can no longer speak to each other from the Bible, we cease to share a common Christian identity. We lose our shared foundation—our shared theological core—and our conversations go in circles. In fact, our conversations largely take place only within our own carefully constructed social circles, not within the theologically diverse body that is the church. We find ourselves unable to speak across our conservative-liberal divides because we are no longer speaking a common language.
Might it be possible that the language of the Bible is the language we must learn to speak together again?
What if more of us found ourselves in communities of engagement around Scripture, all around the Mennonite church? What if we found ourselves meeting regularly to study the Bible with well-prepared teachers, who would lead us into in-depth grappling with the Scripture and its many contexts, marinating in God’s Story together over time? What if we kept on listening and talking, challenging and persuading, until we could articulate not only our own, but each other’s perspectives on what the Scripture is saying to the church?
Would this guarantee we would all come out at the same place on sexuality issues? Probably not, since we already know that there are biblical preachers and scholars and writers who have arrived at different viewpoints on questions related to sexuality. If different people speak from their sincere but alternative understandings of Scripture, can we, at the very least, listen to what they have to say as we study the Bible together?
New guidelines for membership
Perhaps membership in the Mennonite church should be based not on our beliefs about sexual ethics, but on our willingness to commit to participate in in-depth weekly Bible study in our own congregations. I would very much like to be part of a church where studying the Bible is more central to our identity than our conservative-liberal labels.
I have no doubt that studying the Bible together would be stretching for all of us. That’s because the goal of Bible study is to facilitate a conversation between God and God’s people today. The deep engagement with Scripture our parents and grandparents and Anabaptist forbearers experienced was hugely important for their time and their place. But this is our time, and our opportunity to grapple with Scripture in light of the questions and experiences and stories of our time. We cannot rely on their study, and their spiritual practices, and their experience. We have to experience Scripture for ourselves.
How can we make Bible study and effective teaching a priority? How can we learn to dig deep together, so that we might begin to truly know and love the one thing that can unite us? That is, so that we can know and love the Story of God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ, illuminated by the Holy Spirit, and given to us in the pages of the Bible.