In my last two posts (“Putting the ‘community’ in community hermeneutics” and “Some responses to ‘community hermeneutics’“), I argued that the church – as a whole, not just one or a small group – should work together to both interpret and apply Scripture, and I offered several answers to some of the “push back” responses that I often get when I talk about that kind of community hermeneutic. (Remember, “community hermeneutic” is simply the whole church interpreting Scripture together.)
But, let’s be honest, for the vast majority of Christians, this kind of community interpretation of Scripture is unfamiliar and often not allowed. For most follower of Jesus, the norm has been one person – or perhaps a small group of people – taking the responsibility to interpret and apply Scripture for the church.
So, how can these believers (assuming they have the desire) move toward a community hermeneutic?
First, we should recognize that among many churches, leaders control what happens when believers gather together. So, I’m going to answer this question in two parts: 1) What if someone desires to move toward community hermeneutics but the leaders do not? and 2) What if leaders desire to move toward a community hermeneutic?
What if someone desires to move toward community hermeneutics but the leaders do not?
Of course, this is the difficult position that many believers find themselves in. I always think it’s good to explain your desires (and the reasons) to the leaders. But, that doesn’t always result in a positive response. However, all is not lost. Begin spending time with believers who will study and discuss Scripture with you. If your church organization has decided to focus their energies on a sermon/homily type approach, then seek other opportunities to gather with your brothers and sisters in Christ for community interpretation. You do not always have to choose one or the other. Your example and growth may persuade others of the importance of community hermeneutics.
What if leaders desire to move toward a community hermeneutic?
Even if leaders among the church and some of the others among the church are ready for a community hermeneutic, there will be some among the church who are not ready. I would suggest several steps toward a community hermeneutic (without diving into the deep end right away).
1) Hold a study session outside of the normal gathering time, and share what some other people say about the passage when you teach/preach.
2) Invite either people from among the church to speak, either taking the entire teaching/preaching time or taking a small part of the preaching/teaching time. (When they speak, you sit down and listen.)
3) Have a time of discussion after the normal teaching/preaching time. Encourage questions and comments, and allow others to answer the questions or respond to the comments. Do not answer everything that’s asked or respond to every comment. (Otherwise, you will STILL be seen as THE person to interpret Scripture.) By the way, don’t be afraid of silence or times when no one speaks. It will take time for people to understand that they really can interpret Scripture and help others when they share.
What suggestions would have for people who are interested in community hermeneutics?
In my last post, I explained that I think that “community hermeneutics” (i.e., the whole church interpreting and applying Scripture together) to be extremely important for the health and growth of the church. (See my post “Putting the ‘community’ in community hermeneutics.”) In fact, I think that when we do not practice community hermeneutics – when only one person or only a few people interpret Scripture on behalf of the church – then I believe the maturity and growth of the church is hindered.
Whenever I begin talking about community hermeneutics and discussing Scripture together with the church, there are a few responses I receive as “push back.” Here are a few:
But they are not theologically educated
Theological education can be good and beneficial. But, it is not the most important aspect of interpreting and applying Scripture. While the Bible school and seminary students can help the church understand Scripture, the engineering students and business students can help as well. So can the farmers, mechanics, carpenters, realtors, etc. Everyone who is a child of God can and should take part in interpreting and applying Scripture. The best thing that a theologically trained person can do is to help others among the church by sharing those interpretive tools with them.
What if someone makes a heretical statement?
We rarely hear heretical statements. However, let’s assume someone does say something heretical – truly heretical, not just against our pet doctrines. First, remember, that person has that belief whether he/she states it or not. If the person doesn’t state the heretical belief, then no one may ever know he/she has that wrong belief. Second, if someone states a heretical belief, that provides the perfect opportunity for the church (as a whole) to help that person come to understanding. This would never happen if the person is forced to remain quiet.
It will just become a time of everyone sharing their own opinions
It could, but only if there are no mature believers to keep everyone focused on Jesus. From what I’ve learned in the last few years, those who are mature among the church are not necessarily the ones who are always talking. Instead, they are the ones who know when to speak and to keep silent. When they speak, they often move the conversation / discussion / study in exactly the direction it needs to go.
A few people (who love to hear the sound of their own voice) will do all the talking
Again, that’s possible, but – again – only if the mature believers do not disciple those people. If we understand why we’re coming together – both to edify others AND to be edified by others – and if we truly care about what other people are saying, then we will all learn to listen more than we speak. Of course, there will always be those who struggle in this area. The time to help them is when we’re one-on-one… encouraging them in what they HEARD more than what they SAID.
There are other responses, of course. But, these are the responses that I hear most often.
Community hermeneutics and discussion when the church gathers can be a scary proposition to a group who is accustomed to a leader-controlled meeting and leader-interpreted message. But, overall, it’s much better for the church.
Over the last few years, I’ve written several posts on the topic of “community hermeneutics.” (For a few examples, see my posts “Toward Mutual Hermeneutics,” “Listening to One Another,” “The First Interpreters,” and “Those pesky Bereans.”) If you’ve never heard the term before, “community hermeneutics” refers to interpreting and applying Scripture together in community with one another.
If you pushed me into a corner… ok, even if you didn’t push me into a corner… I’d say that the lack of community hermeneutics is one of the reasons that the church is in the mess that it’s in today. Our reliance on certain people to interpret Scripture for us – not only to tell us what it means but to tell us how to apply it – is one of the causes (perhaps a main cause) of continued immaturity among the church.
My good friend Maël from “The Adventures of Maël & Cindy” has recently started a series on “community heremeutics” using the German term gemeindetheologie. His first post is called “GEMEINDETHEOLOGIE: Who & How? – An Introduction.”
At one point, Maël writes this:
As Thiselton claims: “All the major traditions of the Christian church formally define doctrine in communal terms, although the emphasis and nature of the community in question varies.” [Anthony C. Thiselton, The Hermeneutics of Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007), xviii] For example, in the Catholic tradition, the hermeneutical community is embodied in the bishops that constitute the Magisterium, while in some Anabaptist traditions, the hermeneutical community is embodied by all the believers in the local congregation.
I think Maël makes a good point here (or actually, Thiselton makes a good point, and Maël expands on it). In almost all Christian groups, hermeneutics is a community task. The question is: who is included in that community who is allowed to interpret Scripture for others?
Instead of going into all the different options, I’d like to make a case for interpretation and application being the responsibility and privilege of all followers of Jesus Christ, not just a subset. Why do I think all Christians should (and must) be involved in hermeneutics?
1. Because all Christians are indwelled by the Holy Spirit who is the one who reveals and provides understanding.
Does that mean that we always listen to him and always respond properly and always interpret what God reveals (either through Scripture or through other means)? Of course not. And, that leads to the second reason…
2. Because all Christians need others to help them understand what the Spirit is revealing to them… all Christians… even the experts.
Add to this the fact that interpretation of Scripture is not usually about TELLING what it means as much as it is about SHOWING what it means. And, the “showing” happens best in community as well.
I’ve been part of a group who practices community hermeneutics (that includes the WHOLE community and not a subset of the community) for several years now. In years of schooling, I probably have more theological education than anyone else who is part of that community. But, because we interpret and apply Scripture together, I’m also able to learn from my brothers and sisters in Christ… even from my youngest brother or sister in Christ.
You may be part of a church organization that does not practice community hermeneutics. Perhaps your denomination or your local church leaders tell you what Scripture means and how you should apply it. May I suggest that you can still practice community hermeneutics? It’s true. Gather together with some friends and begin working through Scripture and through life together.
You’ll be surprised at the difference that it makes…
A couple of weeks ago, I published a post called “Dealing with generalizations and the church.” There were several really good comments on that post as readers thought through how we should deal with generalizations.
Well, thanks to an article published by “Leadership Journal” called “Why I Won’t Give to Your Church,” the church now has the chance to deal with generalizations in a real and public way. And, for the most part, I’d say many are not dealing very well…
I encourage you to read the article and the comments. (There are 25 comments at the time that I’m writing this post.)
Whether you agree with the article’s author or not, once thing is clear: Very few of the commenters are interested in listening to him or his concerns.
Could he have written this article in a way that would be more palatable? Perhaps. But, that’s a completely different issue. The question here – again – is how do we deal with generalizations among the church.
Obviously, this author makes several generalizations, both about churches and about people his age. How should someone respond to these generalizations? What about someone who agrees with the author? What about someone who disagrees with the author? What if someone knows of instances that do not match the generalizations?
You see, I think the way we treat people often says more than what we actually say to them. And, unfortunately, I think many of the commenters are speaking loudly…
So, let’s pretend that you actually know the young man who wrote this article. 1) Assume that you disagree with his generalizations. How would you respond to him? 2) Assume that you agree with his generalizations. How would you respond to him?
(By the way, if you want to discuss the content of the article, that’s fine too. But, I’m really interested in thinking through dealing with generalizations and criticisms, both when we agree with them and when we disagree with them.)
Bringing glory to God… All followers of Jesus Christ want to bring glory to God. It’s a no-brainer.
But, what brings glory to God?
That’s not always a no-brainer… because it’s not the same in all situations.
Dave Black wrote about this in his blog yesterday (Thursday, April 11, 2013 at 8:20 a.m.):
This morning, for example, I was really trying to wrap my head around the Christian’s purpose in life. We often say, “Why, it’s to glorify God, of course!” I have no problem with those words. But are we willing to pray, “Lord, glorify Yourself through me”? The reason I say this is because God sometimes has some strange ways of bringing glory to Himself. Lazarus’s sickness was for the glory of God (John 11:4). Peter’s death was to be a means by which he would glorify God (John 21:19). Much discussion, I believe, has confused rather than clarified this matter of glorifying God. It is possible to glorify God more by death than by life, in sickness than in health, during those twisted, terrifying periods of life when everything seems dark, even in those drab and normal days when nothing is “happening.” It is easily possible to so idealize “glorifying God” that we come dangerously close to denuding the expression of any meaning. Look at your life. By the world’s standards, it may or not be successful, but that’s really irrelevant. Satan is a great imitator, and he has a false gospel, a false discipleship, and a false sanctification. Especially vulnerable are those who get caught up in following some famous Bible teacher’s pet theories and religious vagaries, never settling and abiding in the Truth themselves. It is of first importance that the Christian learn to glorify God no matter what happens to him or her, whatever it takes, whatever it means, even if it means being dropped to the bottom of the ladder, even if it means stooping to drudgery or bending low in unappreciated service to others.
Think about it just a minute…
James was killed in prison, but Peter was released from Prison… Which one glorified God?
Stephen was stoned to death by the crowd in Jerusalem, but Paul was rescued from the crowd by the Romans… Which one glorified God?
Barnabas traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch and beyond, but Philip stopped traveling when he got to Caesarea… Which one glorified God?
Eutychus was raised from the dead, but Stephen was not… Which one glorified God?
I could go on and on using various examples in Scripture. Which examples glorified God? We cannot determine the answer to that question by looking at the outcome.
Whether someone died or not does not necessarily bring glory to God. Whether someone gave money or not does not necessarily give God glory. Whether or not someone speaks does not necessarily glorify God. Whether or not someone travels around the world does not necessarily glorify God.
So, what brings glory to God?
Lately, when I’ve watched or listened to interviews with Christians, I’ve heard something like this: “I’m a Christian, and so I …” What follows invariably related to some of the major social or cultural battles raging today.
“I’m a Christian, and so I think X about illegal immigrants.”
“I’m a Christian, and so I believe X about gun control.”
“I’m a Christian, and so my stand on same-sex marriage is X.”
“I’m a Christian, and so I prefer for X political party.”
These are only a few of the kinds of statements that I’ve heard recently. I’m not concerned that people have strong opinions about certain things. Not at all. I am concerned, however, when these opinions or convictions are used to define what it means to be a Christian. Or, if these convictions do not define what it means to be a Christian, they are often used to divide Christians from one another.
I understand that this is not usually what people intend to communicate by these statements. I think they intend to communicate that because they are followers of Jesus Christ – and based on their understanding of who is and and how he wants them to follow him – they believe certain things about the world, and those beliefs affect their stands on various social, cultural, and political issues.
But, I think what others usually hear is this: “Christians believe X about that issue.” or “To be a Christian, you must believe X about that.” or “Jesus wants you to vote for X.”
Is that really what following Jesus is all about? Because that’s what we’re telling people (whether we intend to or not).
Believe it or not, most of the social issues that we’re dealing with today were also present in the first century AD (not only present, but prevalent and accepted). But, in Scripture, we never see Jesus’ name invoked to attack or defend a political, social, or cultural stance.
So, if being a Christian (a follower of Jesus Christ) is not about these things, then what is it about? What should we focus on when we talk about being a follower of Jesus Christ?
First, I’ll be honest… I don’t like the phrase “mental illness.” But, I don’t know what else to use. I’m talking about emotional issues such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. (If you know of a better phrase to use, please tell me.)
Yesterday, I published a fairly short post called “The church is talking about mental illness, but are we listening?” The point of that post was a simple one: While the church is talking about mental illness right now because of the tragedy in the family of a celebrity Christian, we need to be listening to those who have mental illnesses.
Yes, we can learn more about mental illnesses by listening to the people who struggle wit them. But, even more important, we can learn more about ourselves and about God by listening to all of our brothers and sisters in Christ, including those who struggle with these kinds of issues.
I was extremely encouraged by the response to that post. I want to share some of those responses with you. These responses were left in the comments on that blog post:
Robert wrote: “What we need is people who have been there and out the other side to find their life redeemed to be ministers to those who need to know ‘It doesn’t have to end this way.’”
Liz wrote: “We need fewer people who pat us on the shoulder and tell us we need more faith. Maybe we do, but unless you’ve been there and out the other side, just do as Alan says. Listen to them and pray with and for them. Please.”
Tom wrote: “The single most important thing I think I have ever done for anyone is be there. To simply be present, engaged, encouraging and part of someones life, to love them as friends has been the highest calling of my life.”
Randi wrote: “Listening… being there… removing shame with love… referring to resources… prayer… that’s what I would picture Love doing for those who are battling this illness.”
Dan wrote: “See, listening is great. But there’s something that has to happen before listening; and that’s just showing up. Getting someone, anyone, to show up in person to be there for mentally ill people or their families is 80% of the battle.”
John wrote: “We have looked down upon people who deal with mental illness, as if they are ‘less than’, or as if we are so much more spiritually mature. To some degree, we expect them to somehow snap out of it and move on with their lives.”
And, here are a couple of responses from Twitter:
@morethanpepper wrote: “26 years as a christian with depression been quite the road”
@ReagonGood wrote: “31 yrs of depression it never goes away it plagues your mind its a day to day process you learn to cope or you may die trying”
I want to especially thank my friends who struggle with these issues and who contacted me privately. I appreciate and love each one of you.
I do not know Rick Warren, and I did not know his son. (Yes, I’ve read one of Warren’s books, but that doesn’t mean that I know him.) However, I have known many people who found themselves in Matthew Warren’s place, and many people who have found themselves in the place of sorrow, grief, and guilt that many of Matthew’s family probably find themselves in now.
I once sat in a lady’s living room listening to her nephew talk about his faith in God and his relationship with Jesus Christ. He also talked about his struggles with depression. After he killed himself, I sat in that same living room and listened as his aunt grieved and mourned the loss of her nephew.
I sat in another living room of a close friend who has struggled with bipolar disorder for many years. When he left home that morning, he had left a suicide note for his family and taken a gun with him. His family struggled with what was going on and what they could do. I listened to them and prayed with them, and later rejoiced with them when my friend returned home. As long as I’ve known him, he has demonstrated a strong faith in Jesus Christ and has often encouraged and taught me as we’ve shared our lives together.
I’ve sat in other living rooms, or held the other side of the telephone, or stood next too many other people who have struggled with what has been called “mental illness”: anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. I’ve talked with them; I’ve encouraged them; I’ve tried to help them.
But, most of all, I listened.
Today, because of the tragedy in the family of a Christian celebrity, the church is talking about “mental illness.” People are defining it, describing it, debating it.
But, are we listening… really listening… to our brothers and sisters in Christ who struggle with these problems?
If we’re not, we should be. We can learn from them, because they are part of us. They are an important part of us. They are a needed part of us.
And, until we accept them as part of us, and until we stop talking and telling and condemning and warning and explaining… until we start listening… we’re going to miss something important that God wants to do in our lives THROUGH them. (Of course, God can use us in their lives too, but that’s a different point.)
A good friend of mine has been struggling with depression for a long time now. Every time I talk to him, he encourages me to trust Jesus and to follow him regardless of where he leads me. He is a good brother in Christ… the kind of brother that I would like to be to others. And, he struggles with depression.
I listen to him, because he is part of the body of Christ with me, because God loves him, and because I love him too.
The church is talking about mental illness now… but are we listening?
Five years ago, I wrote a four part blog series called “Sin and the church.” If there’s one word that could describe how the church responds to sin today, that word would be “inconsistent.” For the most part, Christians accept some sins without blinking, while immediately condemning anyone who comes close (or looks like they might one day think about coming close) to other sins. But, according to Scripture, how should we respond to sin? That’s the question I attempt to answer in this series. Below, I’ve “replayed” the final post in that series, with links to the other posts at the bottom.
In this series, I’m asking the question, “What should believers do when they discover that another believer has committed sin?” In this final installment, I want to look at a few attitudes that are necessary for us to deal with sin in a biblical and godly manner. I do not suggest that this list is exhaustive. However, I do believe that these attitudes are extremely important for dealing with any kind of sin.
1. Love – We must approach someone who is actively sinning in an attitude of love. Sin fractures relationships – both relationship with God and relationships with others -, and we should desire to reconcile those broken relationships. Thus, approaching someone with the purpose of exposing their sin is not the proper motivation. A desire to show that a person is not as good as people think is not the proper motivation. A desire to get rid of a leader that we do not like is not a good motivation. We should only approach someone who is sinning out of love.
2. Humility – The attitude of humility begins by recognizing our own sinfulness and our tendency to yield to temptation. Thus, Paul’s warns the Galatians that those who are restoring someone caught in a sin should do so while watching out for themselves. This attitude of humility will also tend to dispel any thoughts of self-righteousness, as we recognize that the grace of God is the only reason that we are not caught in the same sin.
3. Understanding – Love and humility – that is, care for the other person and a recognition of our own sinful tendencies – will lead to an attitude of understanding instead of an attitude of condemnation. It is possible to both welcome and accept a brother or sister caught in sin without condoning sin itself. God does this for us.
4. Forgiveness – Forgiveness is very important, but we often overlook forgiveness, or we wave our hand at it as if forgiveness is not necessary. Forgiveness is necessary and it should be spoken to the individual. Let them know that we forgive them as God forgives them.
I would like to add one final thought about sin and the church. We must make the distinction between sin – that is, disobedience to God – and cultural taboos. Every action that we dislike is not sin. If we do not make this distinction, then we are setting our own opinions of attitudes and behaviors on the same level as God’s. To mention two examples, neither drinking alcoholic beverages nor smoking cigarettes are sin. The behaviors may be unwise. They may be unhealthy. They may be dangerous. They may demonstrate other sins such as addiction or drunkenness. But, the activities themselves are not sin, even though they are not accepted in certain cultures.
Sin is devastating. Sin is pervasive. Sin is unnecessary. We can walk in the Spirit and not sin. However, when a brother or sister sins, the church – other believers – must deal with this sin in a godly manner. Let’s not find ourselves sinning in our actions and attitudes when we are trying to help another brother and sister who is sinning.
Sin and the church series
This morning, I decided to take a walk around the neighborhood to hear from God. I wanted to block out everything else so that there would be no distractions. That way, I would clearly hear what God was saying to me.
It did not go well.
To begin with, even before I left my house, my family kept asking for help. My wife needed to talk; my son and daughter needed help with school; even the dogs needed to be fed. I was finally able to sneak out of the house while they were not looking.
I closed the front door, walked a few steps down the street, and took a deep breath. Finally, I would be able to hear from God, right?
No. Immediately, the neighbors across the street came out of the house to leave for work. They were yelling at each other the whole way to their cars. The wife pulled out of the driveway, but the husband apparently forgot something because he stormed back into the house slamming the door. He returned a few seconds later, paused a moment looking at me, then got back into his car and left for work.
Just as it was starting to get quiet again, a bunch of kids turned the corner on the way to school. They were loud and crazy, calling out to one another, picking on one of the smaller kids. Again, there was no way that I could hear from God with that racket. (But, I have to admit, I did chuckle a little as they picked on that little boy.)
The school kids had just moved out of ear shot when, believe it or not, my cell phone rang. Just my luck, it was a friend of mine who needed some counsel. He talked for several minutes before I was finally able to convince him that I was extremely busy. (What could be more important than hearing from God?) I told him that I would call him back. I’ll get around to that phone call soon.
I made the last turn on the way home and finally had a few moments of quiet to focus just on God… I wish! No! Just then, a mom and two toddlers decided to take a walk. You should have seen and heard that mom struggling with a stroller, bag, two kids, and other assorted assortments that moms always seem to have with them.
Well, I was back home. I guess I could have tried to walk around the block again, but I really needed to start work. I’ll try to hear from God another day.