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How can we get answers from the Bible for 21st century questions?

Photo: Liesa Unger.
Release date: 
Tuesday, 10 January 2017

How do our member churches express the MWC Shared Convictions in beautiful, local variety throughout our global body?

The October 2016 issue of Courier/Correo/Courrier seeks to discern the variety of reasons why Anabaptist communities from around the world come together to form MWC. In the articles that follow, writers reflect on the question: How does Christ’s love for us motivate and guide our response to strangers in our local context?

How can we get answers from the Bible for 21st century questions?

How can we get answers from the Bible for 21st century questions? That’s a real challenge! Parts of the Bible’s message are very clear and timelessly valid. But because our world has changed dramatically, some 21st-century questions require us to re-evaluate other parts. Yet how can we know when we should hang on to previous convictions or whether it’s time to open up for new insights and ways?

In our local church, we wanted to find answers to this question in the years 2010–2012, concerning the topic of sex and marriage, focusing on questions around premarital sex. It’s not the only ethical question, and, of course, not the most important! But it is one that concerns all generations, if not directly, then in the broader (church) family. Our starting point each time is the Bible, which “we accept as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance.”

Studying the Bible together

We knew that attitudes and opinions were very diverse. So should everybody just do what he or she wants? Or is there any orientation from the Bible? Some people from the older generation hoped that this process would tell the younger generation clearly what is right. Others – so-called “burned children,” who had experienced strict church discipline exercised on them or somebody in their peer group in the past – were worried these stories would be repeated. So this process had to be started very carefully. 

We were very pleased to see 100 people from different generations join the process, trusting the guidance of the Holy Spirit on our common journey. We took several important steps:

  1. A period with Bible study – personal and in small groups. Helpful also was a chapter from Tim Geddert’s book All Right Now: “God speaks through the Bible – why do we hear God differently?”
  2. On the first evening we spoke about hopes and fears, cultural changes, hermeneutics and we shared our planned steps. Our goal was that, at the end of this process, we could discern together what we keep as binding, and what should be open to individual freedom.
  3. For two following evenings we invited an external speaker who helped us to get a better understanding of biblical foundations about sex and marriage and what this could mean for our way of living. The main outcome was that sexuality should be imbedded in a loving and life-long relationship characterised by unity, exclusiveness and stability.
  4. The fourth evening was a real highlight, because it was time to find out, where we stand after all that has been heard and said. What’s important for us? What aspects of sexuality and marriage are open to personal interpretation and what should the community address (it’s not solely a private affair)?

To find that out, we drew a line and asked everybody place themselves on this line according to his or her point of view. Our body language expressed whether we would face people we don’t agree with, or turn away from them. We encouraged people to give short statements, like “I’m standing here, because...” Most people were facing the others – despite the different opinions. It was a wide spectrum – yet we all found ourselves under the cross on the wall.

United despite differences

In the following weeks, we recorded important insights, which again were discussed with elders and preachers who didn’t share the same opinion on every point, but were united to present and discuss that with the congregation. A clear majority agreed and accepted the document as a guide. It`s not a document of doctrine. There are no quick answers to the question, “How far a loving couple may go,” rather, it presents insights of the whole process we went through as local church. Sometimes leaders from other churches ask us for that paper, but we have reservations about sharing it because the process is so very important.

Every local church should go through this process by itself. Just adapting results from others without a process will not be helpful. Looking back, there is much reason to be thankful, but we don’t want to keep quiet about painful experiences; this way of transformation in church life was difficult. We failed to live our verbalized claims. People got hurt and some tension still exists. That keeps us humble, for it`s easier to talk about the bright side than the darker side of life. But both belong to our common experience and journey as local church. As the first words of the Shared Convictions say, “By the grace of God…..” we walk forward, focusing on the great vision of shalom.

With this experiences from the past, we approach a new challenge now, to speak about money, wealth and giving. I’m sure we will be challenged by other ethical questions in the coming years. Our starting point each time is the Bible, which “we accept as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance.” And that means being lifelong learners, not having all instant answers, but seeking them together.

—Emanuel Neufeld is pastor of Evangelische Mennonitengemeinde Schänzli, Muttenz, Switzerland.

This article first appeared in Courier/Correo/Courrier October 2016

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