Yesterday I had the opportunity to attend a chapel service at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, one of two graduate schools owned and operated by Mennonite Church USA. For this service, six individuals stood up to read a scripture passage that had been formative in their life, and to offer a short 2-3 sentence reflection on why this text was important to them. There were some lovely, poignant reflections, and after each speaker, we in the congregation would respond by singing the stanza, “The word of God is solid ground, our constant firm confession.”
At the end of this service, prior to the benediction, the worship leader asked us to take some time to meditate on our own formative scriptures and to share them with the person sitting next to us. This question stopped me in my tracks. A few scattered verses ran through my head, but I couldn’t help but feel ambivalent about sharing any of them.
You see, I’m ambivalent about scripture. I know this is nothing new, and it’s an anxiety that many people share, but it’s something I usually stay quiet about. Indeed, as a good Anabaptist Mennonite, shouldn’t I really love the Bible and see it as a keystone text?
Indeed, the recent Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective says, in the article on scripture, “We believe that all Scripture is inspired by God through the Holy Spirit for instruction in salvation and training in righteousness. We accept the Scriptures as the Word of God and as the fully reliable and trustworthy standard for Christian faith and life…We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship.” And this is not a new belief. From its founding in the 16th century, Anabaptist confessions like the Schleitheim Brotherly Union statement in 1527 and the Dordrecht Confession in 1632 use effusive scripture quotations to undergird their statements and actions. Taking scripture seriously is part of the legacy that I’ve inherited.
And I’ve taken biblical studies classes, and learned how to see the Bible in context and as a historical text. I’ve written a few (not many) exegetical papers, and I’ve written many sermons that draw on scripture as their basis. But I’ve found that I prefer to come to scripture with my own agenda, and to make the text work for me, rather than letting it take on a life of its own.
Because, you see, part of the legacy with scripture that I’ve inherited has also been painful. I recall a letter that I received from a well-loved Sunday school teacher, carefully and kindly written, but hurtful nonetheless, citing scripture and letting me know that it would be unfaithful to affirm my mother as a pastor. There were people who threw out verses about God’s perfect plan for the world as my best friend was struggling with brain cancer in high school. There are the scriptures that are constantly pulled out and cited in order to bar LGBTQUI individuals from participating fully in church. In each of these instances, I hated scripture and it did not ring true to me.
I also hate to be drawn into debates about the Bible, where people try to “one up” each other by proof-texting back and forth. It feels meaningless, frustrating and futile to me more often than not. Rather than using the Bible to build each other up or buttress their life together as a community, I’ve seen people use it as a weapon to beat each other over the head.
I carry this baggage with me, and it makes me ambivalent towards allowing scripture to speak too loudly in my life. I have long felt more at home within the warm embrace of theological discourse. For me, it’s easier to wrestle with questions about God in community and drawing from lived experience and the broad narrative and movement that Jesus Christ represents.
But there is another legacy that I’ve inherited from my Anabaptist forbearers, too: the belief that scripture is meant to be tested, interpreted and wrestled with in community, and that its pages are full and limber enough to change and guide us over time and across diverse contexts. The 1995 Confession of Faith states, “We participate in the church’s task of interpreting the Bible and discerning what God is saying in our time by examining all things in light of the Scripture. Insights and understandings which we bring to the interpretation of the Scripture are to be tested in the faith community.”
I often wish that we would pay more attention to this advice than to questions of infallibility. If we took this seriously, than we would need to understand that reading the Bible is a process that cannot, by its very nature, be about exclusion or pinpointing one clear cut truth. It’s a collaborative, challenging and ever-changing process that shapes who we become as a church. We can’t not bring our own agendas to bear on scripture, and we shouldn’t try to read the Bible without them. In the same way, our corporate and personal experiences of God and the world also serve as sources for our theological trajectories and community life.
So, yesterday, as I continued to reflect on the question of scriptures that have been formative to me, Jeremiah 29:11 came to mind, which reads, “’For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’” This scripture was offered to me time and again throughout college and the years right after, by key members of the communities that I was (and still am) a part of. This scripture became important because of who it came from, and although it can often be (wrongly, in my opinion) interpreted as determinism, it has been helpful to me to know that, although God’s plans for me are not set in stone, they are moving alongside the world and pointed towards hope and well-being.