A Post-Conference Reflection on the Bible and Authority

Posted: July 8, 2013 in Church of the Brethren, Hermeneutics

The Church of the Brethren held its Annual Conference this past week in Charlotte, NC. In my last post I made mention that I was preparing to travel there and that one of the subjects that the delegates would engage was “biblical authority.” The query originated from a district asking conference to revisit the 1979 statement paper which Annual Conference passed. That paper acknowledges the great diversity in the church and how terminology was problematic in developing a unified statement. In a nutshell it says that while the church doesn’t agree on biblical authority, it does agree that continued study and meditation on scripture was strongly encouraged.

While this Annual Conference simply reaffirmed the 1979 statement, I did observe some movement within the body. Admittedly there is significant diversity of opinions regarding the bible. However, what I noticed was that the sides aren’t really disagreeing as to whether scripture is authoritative or not. On Tuesday night at conference we were treated to a unique sermon presented as a dialogue between a brother and sister representing the two primary disagreeing groups: conservative and progressive (I won’t go into my post-liberal shpeel about how they are two sides of the same coin). Essentially what was illustrated in this sermon(s) was that both groups think that scripture is authoritative. What distinguished their positions is more a hermeneutical question and a question of degree.

Earlier that day as the issue (biblical authority) went before the delegates I tweeted a response to some of the comments from the floor. In it I suggested that a conversational hermeneutic might help us move forward. What I meant by this was that instead of the starting point being to convince the others that you are right and they are wrong, it begins with the assumption of diverse perspectives coming together in conversation. It assumes that there will be disagreement about conversation content, but that if the conversation is done in the Spirit of Christ by loving each other and guarding each other’s dignity then the community participating in the conversation may discover the real Truth in their presence, i.e. the presence of Christ. I can’t help but wonder why we expect uniformity in hermeneutical and theological perspectives when we are intentionally seeking to be a diversely intercultural church (whatever that may look like). Do we really expect or even want everyone to look, talk, or even believe exactly the same way? Hasn’t the God we worship revealed God’s self as diversity in unity (triunity)? Whenever the church emphasizes one to the exclusion of the other the result is dysfunction, conflict and abuse. When we are able to embrace the diversity of opinions and perspectives among us and still be determined to love and care for each other with dignity, then we become more reflective of the church Paul imagines in 1 Corinthians 12 & 13.

To be clear, I’m not saying that the Church of the Brethren lacks any unifying identity. There are clearly distinct practices and convictions held by Brethren. I will admit that not everyone interprets the convictions the same. However, there is still something that distinguishes Brethren and binds them together (besides God’s Spirit). With this being said, regardless of what group we are representative of if as a community we are fully committed to loving God with all of our being and our neighbors as ourselves as Jesus teaches and commands then I think the rest will work itself out. I would suggest that the Church of the Brethren is so used to disagreeing and suspicious of the other that it is difficult to even admit that we all accept that the scriptures are authoritative (important for faith and life). What the church really disagrees about is the degree to which they are authoritative and how they should be interpreted. These are just my observations and reflections. Let me know what you think (whether or not you were in Charlotte).

  1. Janet Elsea says:

    Well said, Brother. Do I dare say that some of our “differences” of opinion rest in our cultural differences? Certainly this doesn’t encompass them all, but I see more and more the difficulties we have understanding the cultures that contribute to our different understanding of “stuff” such as, “all war is sin” and guns = violence. I can say that within my own children, so at holiday tables, it can get “hairy”. One child and spouse met in the military and continue to work within that governmental structure; another child and spouse are “veterans” of BVS and Brethren College while another child married a Southern Baptist who has viewpoints altogether different from the other two and the final child and spouse never say anything. The despise conflict of any kind.. Reminds me, often, of Annual Conference. The difference is in the relationships. My children will never divide over scriptural interpretations nor differences in belief. It’s not the “blood is thicker than water” idea, but it is the relational connection that allows tolerance all around. That’s not to say that Momma hasn’t had to act as the peace maker from time to time, but there is always the reconciliation because the connection matters. It should be the same with us. But, too often, it isn’t because the relationship isn’t there.

    • Andrew says:

      Janet, welcome to the conversation. Thanks for your comment and for your analogy to your family. While I wouldn’t use the word tolerate, I’d definitely say that “forbearance” is a core aspect of any family life and especially in God’s family.

  2. Kayla Alphonse says:

    Thank you for writing this. I admit that I struggle with the church’s brokenness over biblical authority. I appreciate cultural diversity within the church yet I find it frustrating that the church has varied views on the degree of authority. I appreciate your statement about the diversity within the trinity but isn’t the diversity is more in function, not belief? I’ve been to Churches of the Brethren where Jesus is seen as more of a good teacher instead of a Savior. How can this be reconciled? ***Hoping for reconciliation***

    • Andrew says:

      Hey Kayla, thanks for your comment and question. As far as my question, I was referring specifically to the degrees to which Brethren hold scripture authoritative. In fact I think that the idea of “degrees” is even an illusion as to what is really going on. Because Brethren have been so widely affected by and dependent upon other traditions for developing a theology (or at least engaging in the larger theological conversation vigorously) which would provide direction for how we read scripture, unfortunately we are often left with whatever is the predominate approach in our culture. What that means is that we are dependent upon an approach to scripture fully embedded in the enlightenment perspective. Thus either a lower Christology is assumed or a hyper-elevation of scripture. However, what I am suggesting is that regardless of our disagreements we should be treating each other at the very least the way Jesus commanded us to treat our enemies. This doesn’t mean that we stop our conversation or that we have to accept errors, but that we continue to bear witness in word and deed to God’s kingdom through our Lord Jesus. A conversational hermeneutic requires a strong trust in God’s grace.

  3. Amy says:

    conversational hermeneutic…right on!

    • Scott Holland says:

      Good comments, Andrew. It’s my sense that our conversations have become too intramural within the cultural-linguistic rules of “Brethren denominational discourse.” Brother Wittgenstein needs to get out more.

      Later this week I’m attending the Brethren World Assembly in Ohio. There will be representatives from most of the Brethren denominational families: Grace, Ashland, Old Orders, CoB, etc. What I have found interesting about gatherings such as these is the presence of grace and generosity to recognize that we have emerged from some common origins and related movements but that we have no need to quarrel over denominational polity because this is not a denominational conference. In the absence of a political need to save the denomination or our brand of the institutional church the possibility of a conversational hermeneutic opens itself to us.

      If there are sharply contrasting ways of seeing God, world self or other, one can listen and learn, knowing that one is called by the Gospel to love the neighbor, not necessarily to go to church with him. Denominational leaders are asking their institutions to carry far too much emotional freight by their driving need for institutional reconciliation rather than offering a prophetic call to seek the greater shalom of the city, which according to Jeremiah’s vision, is down by the rivers of Babylon, not up on Mount Zion.

      • Andrew says:

        Scott, once again thanks for your comment. I find myself agreeing with you regarding how politics muddies any opportunity for a conversational hermeneutic. While openness for grace and forbearance may be present at the Brethren World Assembly, all communities, whether on the denominational level or the local congregational level, struggle with conversational hermeneutics. As long as we are committed to live in a believing community shaped by scripture and bound by the Spirit, we will struggle with this. At its very base is the struggle for relationship with the other. Yet it is this very struggle that I believe to which we are called.

        Even if we believe that there is no place for a larger fellowship within the church, we are still left with the politics of relationship. To reject this is to attempt to avoid the human condition (broken relationships). Jesus, the Christ, engaged this and provided the model of redemption through his love of enemy. It is only in the commitment to submit to obediently living this command that we are able to participate in the practice of a conversational hermeneutic effectively. The command to love enemy requires space for the other to have the freedom to enter this same conversation. When applied through hospitality it requires us to sit at the table God sets for us in the presence of our enemies, which is nothing more than sharing our living space with the other(s). This then requires more than simply spending a day or two with people who may not agree, it requires real investment in the life of the other, So what I am arguing is that the conversational hermeneutic is more than a simple conversation. It fundamentally assumes a commitment to filial relationship.

  4. Janet and Kayla, great to have your comments here! I, for one, really appreciate that you both chimed in.

    Janet, just as I caught your comment I was also reading a new book on the early history of the church (surprise, surprise right 🙂 ). His opening comments reflected on how Christianity, even in the earliest phases was transcultural- quickly finding itself at home among many language groups and cities of the empire. I think that is one thing we miss as Brethren. Our sectarian impulse often leads us to the assumption that the culture is defining of the faith. So it is easy for us to look to other continents and celebrate their faith because the culture is distinct enough for us to overlook language, clothing, and even some practices that are different from our own. But when we look at brothers and sisters who share the continent, political system, and speak enough of the same language we quickly find them to “speak of a different God” (as one of our brothers said at the mic last week). In other words, those who are most similar present their differences in the starkest contrast.

    Kayla, I wonder if Biblical Authority is code for other theological concerns. As you say, there are those among the Brethren who seem to think Jesus no more than a good moral example. At the same time, there are those who proclaim such a limited atonement so as to nearly negate the role of God’s grace. Thus, the question seems to me to be about Christology and not so much Biblical authority since both can claim the scriptures as a theological authority within their theological reflection.

    I appreciate what you are pointing to here Andy. I wonder if a helpful term in addition to Conversational Hermeneutic, we can start to talk of theology as an Inter-Cultural practice. In other words, doing theology within the church requires some abilities to work across cultures- learning a new vocabulary, the ability to draw connections between different terms, and be comfortable with difference.


    • Andrew says:

      Josh, actually I think that would be a very helpful explanatory note regarding theology. In the Church of the Brethren it is most obvious when we observe the distinctive contrasts between liturgical practices among Haitian Brethren, Hispanic Brethren, Progressive Brethren, Conservative Brethren, etc. Even as worship practices vary across cultures, so does theological convictions (and this all complicated by the issue of language).

  5. Bill Kinzie says:

    I thought there was a healing loving spirit beginning His work among us again. Began to be optimistic for our future .

  6. wkinzie says:

    Yes, I was there the night of the dialogue. (the fiddler on the stage). It was enlightening…and modeled how a helpful dialogue might proceed.

    Over the years, this layman has flipped from one side to the other as new “lights” seemed to present themselves with what appeared as great clarity. I suppose that is normal as one matures.

    Now I follow posits with mellow interest…it just doesn’t have the intensity it used to produce in me. To family and friends I try to be loving and compassionate and let the younger generation deal with the absolutes. Peace. Bill K

  7. Scott Holland says:

    Hey Andrew, I would respond to your response but today it seems Anarchism is the rage! Look at Brian’s blog but do visit Ted Grimsrud’s blog for the full story. I now even have anarchists as incoming students at Bethany! Ah, academic fads! You know, the telling thing about most of the issues debated on these theological blog sites, from hermeneutics to Christian anarchism, is that they are far removed from most thinking, searching, seeking Christians in the pews. At least I fear we present and debate the issues in ways that are so alien to the average MD, lawyer, truck driver or kindergarten teacher. I’m again working with a congregation in transition to a new pastor and Sunday I was struck by the great distance of this well educated congregation from so much of the language of the theological academy. In fairness to you, Andrew, I have sensed a contemporary pastoral savvy and sensitivity in several of your posts. But hey, a spiritualized version of Emma Goldman is calling!

    • Andrew says:

      Scott I’m not sure what to make of your (lack of?) response. I’m not a big fan of anarchism (at least in the political forms it has taken) for a number of reasons. Some of the ideas that have emerged from it may resonate with me, but experience tells me that the path of anarchy too often leads to violence. I am glad that you are serving a congregation in transition. I firmly believe that all theologians should be actively involved in ministry.I too recognize the disconnect in language between the academy and the congregation. However, if our theology is formed like our ecclesiology (from the bottom up) then the disconnect isn’t as great. In fact many of the theological discussions are very relevant to the life of the everyday MD, lawyer, truck driver or kindergarten teacher. It is all about making the connections. The best theology is born out of life among everyday people who are struggling and suffering just to keep going. And as to relevance, I don’t think there is any more relevant topic for a believer’s faith than hermeneutics.(of course that shows my bias also)..Regarding a spiritualized Emma Goldman being called, I’m not sure the church (or world) is ready for that.

      • Scott Holland says:

        Andrew, I didn’t mean to be glib or abrupt. I was only signaling that in the whirlwind of the blog, hermeneutics can quickly be so yesterday if today’s topic is something more dramatic, like anarchy. Some anti-anarchist Menno friends pulled me into Grimsrud’s blog and the next thing I knew Brian was also doing anarchy. As I mentioned, some incoming students at the seminary are also claiming to be anarchists. It likely goes with saying that I’m no fan of anarchism.

        For the record, I liked your response. Although just getting in from day one of the Brethren World Conference I can say it really does make a huge difference in a conversational hermeneutic if one is not doing denominational polity or trying to preserve and protect the denomination.

        [I’m not sure you would really want a bottom up hermeneutics from the congregation, would you? In my experience, I find when parishioners really get honest they are quite unorthodox, even nicely heretical. This is in part what I meant by my references to the MD, layer, truck driver and kindergarten teacher].

        Dale from Ashland gave a great talk today on 19th century Brethren spirituality. A central theme was what we lost of the spiritual depth, poetry, metaphor and complex discipleship in Pietism and Radical Pietism when the church switched from German to English. Rather than translate many of the texts of Pietism, we adopted English evangelical and some Reformed texts, hymnals and study materials…some of the classic 18th and 19th century Brethren texts in spirituality remain untranslated. I do read Gottfried Arnold in German because he is so wonderfully heterodox and polydox.

        I didn’t think you would be preaching anarchy, Christian or otherwise, to your congregation. I know your church a bit, back in the day I pastored in Canton.

      • Scott, I was thinking about your comment about the ease of a conversational hermeneutic at a place like the World Assembly. Thus I was glad to read your comment today.

        I agree that the conversation is much easier when polity is absent the conversation. The cynic in me, while enjoying the exchange and the learning, finds gatherings like that a bit contrived. It is too easy to acknowledge share roots, applaud, and then go home unchanged. I’d like to think that the sermon at conference Andy is pointing to was a true conversation, where both were changed and work together differently in their everyday interactions. For they live close to each other, are part of the same district of the same denomination. It is a little harder to walk away and say “Wasn’t that nice.”

        I might say, with a tinge of a chuckle, that you sounded a little like our institutionally immersed friends- a disconnect between the pew sitter and the theologian. I think this platform- and other social media- allows those of us within the feedback loops of the academy guilds can speak among the church.


  8. Scott Holland says:

    Josh, I agree. But do we always need to go home changed and do we all have to go to church together? I have fine relationships with Old German Baptist Brethren — both New Conference & Old — here in Southern Ohio. We talk, even talk theology, at the Yellow Springs Farmers Market. Granted, we have more to say to one another about heirloom tomatoes than heirloom Mack.

    But I feel no need to change them or they feel no need to change me. What if we are OK they way we are?

    Well, a couple of the New Conference guys are a bit too missional for my tastes in conversations. This has been my critique of the problem of neo-colonialism even with the cool guys and gals of the Emergent movements. The new Conference didn’t split churches and families “over computer technology and Smart Phones” as rumor has it. It was about being missional.

    Jesus calls us to love our neighbors and to be good neighbors — not necessarily to go to church with them. Seeking the peace of the city is a more loving poetic and prophetic mandate than these endless, tedious, intramural ecclesial conversations aimed at an impossible and an unnecessary churchly unity. Jesus came preaching the reign of God and we plant tribal churches.

    Many of your Elgin colleagues are here having a good time in Brookville. But it is not all sweetness and light here either. Someone from the floor (a Brethren whose family goes almost all the way back Mack and his beard) pressed the question: “How is it that the three most influential leaders of the Brethren in the 19th century WERE NOT BRETHREN?” There was a tone of judgement in his question. Well, these three leaders, Kurtz, etc., WERE converts to the Brethren as young men and embraced a theology marked by Anabaptism-Pietism. There was an assumption in the hall by several that these men WERE NOT BRETHREN even though they were ordained Dunkers and prolific spiritual/theological writers in the movement or denomination. Frank stood with his signature bow tie to make a lighthearted joke about this ethnocentric theological assumption but a number of the scholars and leaders of these Churches of the Brothers were not amused. Bach remained silent.

  9. Scott,

    I have been thinking about your comment and two questions this weekend.

    Let me say this about change. No, I don’t think we should come to these conversations- in manufactured ecumenical or denominational family reunions hoping to change the other. Rather, I am speaking of the readiness to be changed- it is a first person perspective not a hegemonic desire to force something on the other. In the thin air of academic or ecumenical conversations it is simply to easy to applaud and smile, nod at the right times, and pretend to be interested and then walk out and not do a thing about it. There seems to be very little in the context that asks anything of me, asks me to alter how I think or act. I am not hoping to change anybody there, but I do hope that because we encounter one another that some how what passes between us impacts how live and think. I just came back from Ekklesia Project- which I am certain is to churchie for your tastes- and though I find that group up my alley, I come home asking myself the same question- No what? How does that gathering ask something different of me for having been their and developed relationships and shared ideas.

    As for going to church, must I go to church with them? Probably not, but I do hope to pray with them. Study some scripture with them. And even drink coffee in the morning and good pizza at night, and talk great ideas and imagine new actions together. Honestly, I think american christianity is just too solipsistic. We just think its me and God that matter. It’s like one step past individualism. The remedy, for me, is not more isolation or me and Jesus talk, but more community. I am with you in rejecting the nasty, overly oppressive, sick ol’ Anabaptism. But that is not the only form of church community. Its long past time to drop the old “Anabaptism and Pietism are two tensions in opposition” theology. That was the mantra of the generations previous to you and me. There is a way to talk of individuals contributing to church communities, and church communities helping to form individuals in healthy way. I just don’t see Brethren theology and practice is an either or game.


    • Scott Holland says:

      Josh, Right. Praying and pizza and coffee together, in my experience, has led some to conclude it might be interesting “to do church together” in a more classical ecclesial way. When I have assured a mixed multitude of young professionals on complicated spiritual quests that they might in fact be doing God’s work and embodying the Spirit in their worldly holiness they have been more inclined to come together in an ecclesial way to explore what what God might be doing in the world and in their lives.

      The great missional mistake, in my opinion, and I saw it manifested again this weekend, is when church leaders from Winona Lake, Ashland, Elgin and other churchly locations stated earnestly that “we” have so much to offer the world as if our sacred reservations are the repositories of divine grace, goodness and activity in the world. Until about 1968 in Amerika this bad fiction could be sustained but most today on spiritual paths know that God no longer dwells in temples made with human hands. The separate Kingdom has now yielded to the reckless grace manifested in the sacred Kosmos.

      One of the dysfunctions or pathologies of the Anabaptist-Pietiest family, and I saw this stated without irony or humor this weekend, is how these “communitarians” truly believe the sacred is mirrored most faithfully in the category of “separation” rather than in the practice of impure and imperfect connection with the other who may be truly orthodox (ortho dox = praising rightly) but doctrinally or behaviorally “incorrect.”

      We cannot deny that in our Anabaptist-Pietist history the category of separation has been equated with the sacred. A certain sociologist and I reviewed this catechism together late one night at a biker bar up the highway from the Brethren Heritage Center. You would have liked the Harleys in the lot, especially the new orange Sportster.

      Even as there are varieties of community, on the topic of individualism, the Enlightenment variety is not the only genre. The individualism of Romanticism, which emerged and evolved from Radical Pietism in ways that followed the aesthetic logic of the soul, offers a way in which strong poets and edgy prophets can imagine and invite more inclusive communities of discourse and practice.

      I’m not preaching this morning but if I were, this would be my homily.

  10. […] scale.  Andy Hamilton’s blog about the similarities between the sides in recent opinions on Biblical Authority in the Church of the Brethren got me really thinking about how so many have set the boundaries of […]

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