The community and interpretation
7 June 2012 Theology
From Stuart Murray’s Naked Anabaptist:
The role of the community of faith was, and still is, diminished by excessive reliance and expert interpreters, unaccountable individual interpretations, and unwarranted deference to those who preach and teach. Scholars, preachers, and inspired individuals may all help us interpret and apply the Bible, but the community of faith is the primary context where what each brings can be weighed. It is also the primary context in which we can weigh the results of applying what we understand the Bible to teach and reflect further on what we have learned as we have tried to practice our faith. (66-67)
The particular piece in there that I have found one of the most detrimental to local congregations is the “unwarranted deference to” their particular preachers and teachers. Honestly, I’m talking about a level of deference that verges on idolatry. The preacher can do and say no wrong. Whatever they say goes. Their interpretation, their exhortation, their proclamations–Biblical or not, logical or not, ethical or not–are practically theopneustos, God Breathed. And having a mono-voiced congregation caters to that problem.
Preachers and teachers must encourage the people of the congregation to dialogue, engage, and challenge when necessary. Criticism is necessary. Preachers, while having a particular gift, are only one portion of the whole body.
I have heard pastors say during their sermons, “Go ahead and test me on this. Go home, read the passage over.” But the attitude was not along the lines of, “Engage with what I said, challenge me; let’s dialogue about any inconsistencies or problems, and let’s work toward truth together.” Instead the attitude was quite openly, “Read the passage and you will see that I am right.” No humility and guidance; but arrogance and dominance. And I’ve also heard members of different churches clearly treat their preachers as divinely inspired themselves. They get their Biblical, social, political, and even sexual direction from those who speak from the pulpits. But they never listen critically, or try to work through a problem if there seems to be a contradiction. The default is, “Pastor said x. I’m reading y. Pastor is the preacher so I must be wrong.”
Preachers and teachers are held to a higher standard, and we–the non-teachers and non-preachers–play a large part of helping them stay accountable and humble. Not by uncritically and silently submitting to whatever is said from the pulpit; by sitting on our hands, shouting ‘Amen,’ and making sure we don’t speak out of place and bring “discord” by saying anything negative about the sermon or teaching. We can not go around saying, “Well, that’s what Pastor said. I know the passage actually said the opposite, but Pastor can’t be wrong. He’s been to seminary.”
We absolutely must be willing to take a stand for truth, to hold our leaders accountable to the congregation, to the Holy Spirit, to the Scriptures. We have to be willing to speak prophetic truth to the powers that be, even if those powers that be are within our congregation.
All members of the congregation are vital to the life and practice of that local community. We all have gifts and we must use them. No one should be subservient to another in a church. The church can not and will not thrive. The voice of the window cleaner who dropped out of school in the tenth grade is just as valuable and necessary to a proper interpretation of Scripture and guidance for the body as is that of the M.Th. graduate from Dallas Theological Seminary.