Pathways Week Five: Anabaptist Understandings of Scripture

Journey Forward is Mennonite Church USA’s churchwide renewal process of engaging in Scripture, storytelling and sharing how God is at work in the lives of people and congregations across MC USA. Its purpose is for us to renew our local and denominationwide identity and affirm our core beliefs as we live out the mission to which God calls us as the church. It is a process, not a conclusion. The process invites you to connect how you’re living God’s call to broader church mission and draws our attention to how the Living Word is moving in our midst.

The Renewed Commitments concisely name core values orienting MC USA toward a faithful future.

God invites us to experience and bear witness to the belovedness of all creation. We yearn to know and share in the mystery of God’s unending love. But we live in a broken world. The Holy Spirit beckons us toward the restoration of all things in Christ, and on this journey together, we commit to:

 

  • Follow Jesus

  • Witness to God’s peace

  • Experience transformation

The Pathways study guide is a resource for individuals and groups across MC USA to use in exploring how they might live out these values in their particular contexts. In preparation for MennoCon19, we invite you to use this study guide and consider how these commitments are at work in your life and community.

Session Summary

Building on John 1:1-18, this session explores the nature of Scripture and the living Word of God from an Anabaptist perspective. Groups will identify their specific practices as a community of faith that seeks to understand Scripture.

Gather

As people enter, invite them to write down a response to the question, “Who/what is God’s Word?” using the provided paper and pens. This can be a word, phrase or short description — but they should not write their name on the paper. The completed papers should be placed in the basket or bowl. Ideally, this would not take any time from the session itself but would serve as an informal exercise as attendees gather.

Revisit the previous session by asking if anyone encountered an interesting symbol of discipleship in the time since they last gathered. Invite them to briefly name their new symbols.

Announce today’s session as “Anabaptist Understandings of Scripture.” Invite the group to read this unit’s theme aloud together:

“We commit to follow Jesus. As an Anabaptist community of the living Word, we listen for God’s call as we read Scripture together, guided by the Spirit. Through baptism we commit ourselves to live faithfully as Jesus’ disciples, no matter the cost.”

Teach the group to say this short phrase in unison: “Open our eyes, Lord.” Read Psalm119:9-18 aloud as an opening prayer, pausing after each verse for the group to repeat, “Open our eyes, Lord.”

Encounter

Read the following passage from 2 Timothy 3:15-17 (NRSV):

“From childhood you have known the sacred writings that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work.”

Invite participants to summarize the definition of Scripture given in this passage, one of the most direct descriptions of Scripture provided in the Bible.

Acknowledge that the Bible offers many metaphors and descriptions of God’s Word. It can be understood as the sacred writings of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament — the Scriptures of the Christian faith. God’s Word is more than the written Word of Scripture though. It can also be understood as an overall message conveyed through those Scriptures and God’s spoken words (1 Kings 17:2). It refers to the person of Jesus Christ (Revelation 19:13) and to the gospel and reign of God he proclaimed (Luke 4:43).

Read John 1:1-18 aloud, then ask the group to identify the different meanings of “the Word” in this passage. The Gospel of John introduces Jesus as the Word who became flesh. Jesus is identified as God, as the author of all things, as the true light. In verse 17, Jesus is positioned in relation to the law of Moses as a bearer of grace and truth, the one who makes God known. He fulfills the law and the prophets (Matthew 5:17). Thus, Mennonites seek to interpret Scripture — the written Word — in light of God’s fullest revelation in Jesus Christ — the living Word. The entire Bible holds meaning for Mennonites, but it is interpreted through the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Note that some important places where this comes through are in the times God’s people commit violence, such as in Joshua and Judges. Jesus’ teaching to not retaliate by taking an eye for an eye, but rather to love enemies (Matthew 5:38-48), and his telling Peter to not defend him but to put his sword away (John 18:10-11), signal God’s vision for nonviolent love. Even parts of Scripture that come after the Gospels do not take priority when interpreting Scripture through the life and work of Jesus. Paul’s instruction for women to keep silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35), for example, is overshadowed by Jesus’ resurrection appearance to his female disciples and entrusting to them the first proclamation that he is risen (Matthew 28:9-10, John 20:17).

Acknowledge that as Mennonites, we regard ourselves as an Anabaptist community of the living Word. Anabaptist understandings of Scripture regard God’s Word not as a static entity preserved from an ancient time, but as living and active (Hebrews 4:12). We engage the Word through the dynamic activity of the Holy Spirit.

Point out that this session’s title uses a plural word on purpose: Anabaptist Understandings of Scripture. Ask the group, “Why is ‘understandings’ an important word in relation to Scripture?”

Discern

Pass the basket or bowl around the circle, pausing so each person can draw a paper and read aloud the anonymous description of God’s Word written on it. Use this exercise to point to the nature of God’s Word as living and active. In the same way, our understandings of Scripture are living and active. Anabaptists are not a uniform group. Mennonites are one segment of the broader Anabaptist tradition and varying understandings of Scripture exist among us. Today’s seating arrangement as a circle illustrates the Anabaptist commitment to reading and interpreting Scripture, the written Word, as a community of the living Word. While valuing the specialized insights of those with theological training, the Mennonite church does not designate one person or elite group to act as the theological authority for interpreting Scripture. The Holy Spirit is not limited by human training. The Spirit guides the faith community as they listen to one another and discern together the meanings of Scripture, bringing together the written Word with the living Word among them.

Note how naturally, multiple understandings of Scripture arise within the Mennonite faith community. Sometimes this causes tension and conflict among us. But it is also a strength of the Mennonite tradition, challenging us all to greater faithfulness as Jesus’ disciples as we come to the circle to learn from one another’s understandings of Scripture and celebrate what we hold in common. The church discerns together these shared beliefs and has sometimes recorded them as confessions of faith that, over time, are revised as the Holy Spirit inspires us to read and interpret Scripture from a variety of contexts.

Offer an example of how your congregation, conference, agency or constituent group has revised its understanding of Scripture over time. Lead the group in describing how this change came about and discuss the perceived role of the Holy Spirit in this change. If time allows and you believe this would be constructive, broaden the discussion to identifying areas where members of your congregation, conference, agency or constituent group currently differ in their understandings of Scripture.

Embody

This section allows your group to delve more deeply into the focus statement: “As an Anabaptist community of the living Word, we listen for God’s call as we read Scripture together, guided by the Spirit.”

Explain that you will break this down into five parts, and each person will choose one to explore:

  • What does it look like for us to be an Anabaptist community?
  • What difference does it make to understand the Word as living?
  • How do we listen for God’s call?
  • How do we read Scripture together?
  • What does it mean for us to be guided by the Spirit?
  • [if desired] What other important aspects of Anabaptism and the Word are missing from this statement?

Organize small groups around each of these questions. If you like, add a sixth group for the identification of missing elements from the focus statement. Depending on the size of your group, you may have more than one group assigned to a question, or you may want to combine two questions within one group. Allow 10-15 minutes for the small groups to discuss the question within the specific context of your congregation, agency, affinity group or conference. Each small group should identify one or two representatives to report key ideas back to the large group.

End with the group listening to one another’s reflections and offering questions and comments, two to three minutes per group.

Send

Conclude by reading aloud this statement from the “Shared Convictions” of global Anabaptists identified by Mennonite World Conference in 2006: “As a faith community, we accept the Bible as our authority for faith and life, interpreting it together under Holy Spirit guidance, in the light of Jesus Christ to discern God’s will for our obedience.”

End with a time of prayer, asking participants to move toward the space in the middle of the circle if they are able, gathering the group closer together. Invite anyone who wishes to spontaneously offer a prayer. Close this time of prayer after several minutes.