In “Hope as Church Unravels? Part 1, The Unraveling,” I introduced a six-part series on ways the church, denominations, concepts and patterns of ministry, theological training are unraveling. Here in Part 3 I home in on whether we can, in fact, do the reweaving together. I actually don’t know—if anything our ability to work together seems to be declining. So in this post I proceed with no assurance that we can do this even as I ponder how, particularly through functioning in communities of discernment, we might take steps in that direction if so inclined.
From Position Statements to Communities of Discernment
Battle. Win-lose. If we differ, my position should defeat yours.
What if instead we moved from position statements to communities of discernment? Let me test steps and possible outcomes of such a move:
A first step is to take seriously that we all know only in part, as if through a mirror dimly, as Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians. Then, face to face with God, we will know fully. But now we get some things right—and some wrong. If our main approach to Christian faithfulness is to determine what’s right, then champion it as the position all should hold, we bypass the getting-things-wrong part.
If we accept that we know only in part, we may consider a second step: recognizing that the fullest knowing we can experience now flows from seeking truth together. This is what Jesus invites in Matthew 18, as he promises that where two or three are gathered in his name, he is with us.
Jesus also empowers us to take a third step. That’s to trust that when we gather in his name we form communities of discernment through which in what we bind or loose on earth we are seeking to implement what is bound or loosed in heaven, in God’s realm. We dare not do this frivolously. Just verses earlier Jesus has warned that better to drown than cause one who believes in him to stumble. Still amid ways we can misuse this amazing power, we are to help each other discern what to bind or loose.
Yet how far from knowing how to do this we are, as increasingly we even accuse each other of wrongly binding or loosing. We take stumbling seriously—except that the cause of stumbling is not I but always you.
Is there a step beyond this impasse? Acts 2 offers a possibility. Long before, humans in their pride had tried as one people speaking one language to build a tower to the heavens—but God had scattered them into many peoples babbling countless dialects. Now God’s Spirit falls as tongues of fire on Jesus’ first disciples, and they speak “in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.” This astonishes their audience from many nations, because when these Galileans speak, “we hear, each of us, in our own native language.”
Not through human effort but through the Spirit’s power unleashed in the emerging church, Babel comes undone. Here we glimpse a fourth step, which is to trust that still today the Holy Spirit can empower us to speak and hear across the isolating languages our opposing viewpoints become. We won’t become communities of discernment unless when polarized we invite the Spirit to interpret for us. When faced with your seemingly misguided views I need the Spirit to help me hear your language.
If the Spirit interprets us to each other, then maybe we can begin to understand how to take a fifth step, which is to celebrate that in Christ dividing walls of hostility have been torn down. In Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul celebrates that Christ is our peace. Drawing perhaps on a hymn that had celebrated Christ as unifier of the fragmented universe itself, Paul celebrates miracle: that primal division, a Berlin Wall between Jews once thought to be God’s people and Gentiles once understood not to be has tumbled.
Might that miracle, the reconciling peace of Christ who invites us to love the viewpoint enemies we turn each other into, destroy our walls today? I’m actually not sure. We battle even over whether walls should be demolished, if so how and in whose favor. In the years since I first began to develop the material in this post, theological warfare rather than peacemaking seems to be intensifying. But let me fallibly ponder what might happen if, when we gather around Scripture in the presence of the Spirit, we wrestled with divisive issues as communities discerning what to bind and loose today.
One key thing I suspect we’d wrestle with is the relationship between specific Bible texts and biblical themes or trajectories.
Take slavery, no longer, I hope, divisive, so maybe permitting calm learnings. How could Christians for most of Christian history support slavery? Because specific texts seemed to. But texts gain meaning within larger paradigms or worldviews that have come to be experienced as the common sense of the day.
For centuries worldviews that treated slavery as just the acceptable way things were coexisted peacefully with texts that seemed likewise to assume slavery as normal. Then abolitionists drawing on broader scriptural themes of justice and equality shattered the slavery-is-acceptable paradigm. That’s why we don’t view biblical admonitions for slaves to obey their masters as validating slavery today. Specific texts do matter—and so do the trajectories that sometimes help us interpret given texts anew.
Cut to that battle-surrounded word homosexuality and such successors as LGBTQ. Among reasons we’re at each other’s throats in this area of discernment is a clash over whether to prioritize specific texts many understand to condemn same-sex relationships or such classic scriptural themes as God’s love for the stranger, alien, slave, outcast of a given era or context. Some believe that unless the specific texts bind us, we evade God’s call to costly righteousness. Or they may point more broadly to the primal order of creation as being union of man and woman.
Others wonder whether Jesus wants to surprise us today by turning those we marginalize into heroes, as he did the Good Samaritan or the woman who wept on his feet, frequently turning upside-down expectations of who belonged among God’s people. This reversal was then extended as some of the early Christians, such as Peter in Acts 10-11, came to see Gentiles as belonging among God’s people. Previously Gentiles had been deemed unclean but now, as Peter is told in a vision, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.”
Whatever our overarching paradigm ends up being, it will guide our giving greater or lesser weight to given scriptures even as careful study of and wrestling with specific texts continues to be essential.
Maybe we should try a cooler topic, though it was once white hot and still is for some: the role of women in the church. When I was growing up, I understood specific texts to make matters clear: women are to be silent in the church. Hence women can’t be pastors.
But by the 1995 Confession of Faith in Mennonite Perspective, the Mennonite church was teaching that all leadership offices are open to women. After generations of agonizing discernment, many had shifted to a paradigm in which, for example, Jesus’ empowerment of women took priority. Now texts that seemed to forbid women pastors were understood as tied to specific New Testament circumstances. Yet others of us believe that in loosening the ties that bound us to literal application of specific texts we’ve taken a broad path leading not to righteousness but to destruction.
Then let’s ponder peace and war and the implications in such a setting as Eastern Mennonite Seminary, both Mennonite and ecumenical. Roughly half of our students are Mennonite and perhaps mostly believe Christian participation in war goes against Jesus’ teachings and his Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) call to love enemies, to do good to those who persecute us. But half are from other denominations and may believe the Bible makes space for some just wars to be fought precisely to free the captives and liberate the oppressed, as Jesus preached in his Luke 4 “inaugural address.”
Across our traditions, we take specific texts with implications for war and peace seriously. But which ones we treat as literal guides to daily decisions or as dreams of what may yet be in the already-but-not-yet of the kingdom of God depends on the broader paradigm within which we approach them.
Does this cover the issues for discernment? Not remotely. We need to discern whether the Bible offers explicit or at least thematic guidance on abortion. The death penalty. Gun control. Care for the earth. Global warming. Whether God is biased toward the poor or if not how we honor biblical warnings that the mighty will be brought low. Whether government is part of the problem or the solution in caring for “the least of these.” Whether to be Christian is to prophetically challenge capitalism, constructively embrace it, or both.
Is the point that any view is as good as another? No. It’s that when we see only in part we need to wrestle things out together. If I’m too quick to focus on specific texts when the debates rage, you need to remind me of classic themes of Scripture that could complexify my engagement with such texts. If I’m too quick to ride on viewpoints above the fray, I need you to call me down into the muck and sometimes God-ordained suffering the specifics call for. To wrestle it out together is to become the communities of discernment Jesus invites us to embody.
At EMS we already teach discernment, which threads its way through our curriculum. Yet at EMS and in many congregational and denominational contexts we can more proactively name the importance and nature of discernment and the need to train each other in the discernment process.
This is ever more crucial in a church and culture addicted to offering position papers even when what will truly bless us is the reconciling peace of Christ. That blessing can come as walls of hostility are replaced by bringing our warring views to Scripture in the presence of the Spirit who empowers us to understand each other’s foreign languages. Then truly we might be within range of learning how redemptively to bind or to loose without causing each other to stumble.
Though not speaking here officially on behalf of EMS, Michael A. King is dean, Eastern Mennonite Seminary; blogger and editor, Kingsview & Co; and publisher, Cascadia Publishing House LLC. This post has roots in an August 2012 EMS convocation presentation and provided some of the seeds for the seven-part series of summer 2015 posts overviewed in “Blogging Toward Kansas City, Part 1: Introduction.”