Teaching the Bible in the Congregation, by Ross T. Bender

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Ross T. Bender§

→291# “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17

This text I heard frequently as a boy in church and it left an indelible impression on my mind. I do not recall hearing a great deal of discussion about the nature of Scripture and the meaning of inspiration. Our little country church lived far from the theological controversies and debates going on elsewhere in the early part of this century. Though I cannot recall ever hearing the phrase, “the authority of the Scriptures,” I never doubted that they carried authority. That was axiomatic and unquestioned. We turned to them for guidance for daily living and we found it.

Nor do I recall ever hearing the ministers speak of heilsgeschichte. But each year in the spring, our aged bishop would review the entire history of salvation in German, an undertaking which took several hours. The most dramatic parts were rendered with quivering chin and tears in his eyes. And in this way, long before Jerome Bruner (The Process of Education) laid it down as correct pedagogy that any body of knowledge can only be taught effectively when its internal structure has been grasped, I came to understand the historical frame of reference within which the first exodus and the second are part and parcel of the same event.

Another significant way I learned the Scriptures was through their incarnation in the life of our congregation. I claim no perfection in the way my people lived out the biblical vision but I did experience authenticity then and I recognize it now in →292 retrospect. They aspired to be faithful and they understood their symbols, practices and life style to be true expressions of God’s will as revealed in the Bible. That their interpretations and applications may well have been unsophisticated and naive does not set this aside. They earnestly desired to know and to do the will of God. Furthermore, I knew that I belonged in this community and in belonging to it, I was also heir to the tradition which shaped it. Because my people had a long memory in which the biblical world was as real as the modern world (or more so), I came to share that memory, that tradition, that history and claim it as my own.

In this kind of setting I was taught the Bible, one in which the Bible was understood as having authority, in which the biblical history was recited regularly, and in which the community of faith understood the biblical history to be its very own history. I recall the curtained off area and the hard benches in the basement of the church building where our class met but I remember even more vividly the poster size pictures of biblical events and persons, the 3x5” card reproductions of those same pictures we were privileged to take home with us, and the eager enthusiasm of our teacher who explained their significance to us. I also remember being aware that he loved us.


In a stimulating article “A Hermeneutical Approach to Educational Theory,” H. Edward Everding, Jr., advances the “thesis that hermeneutics provides the proper frame of reference within which to develop educational theory;” he also focuses on “the interrelationship of biblical interpretation and teaching.”[1] Providing a brief but well-documented summary of the interpretive process, Everding identifies some of the basic problems of interpretation which must be resolved: the transfer of meaning between text and interpreter, the distance between them in “time, space, language and thought,” the difference between the presuppositions of the interpreter and those of the text, the problem of language, and the goal of interpretation.[2]

Everding also identifies several hermeneutical approaches, including existentialist interpretation (Bultmann) in which “the original intention of the →293 text is retrieved through a dialogic process guided by the interpreter’s own question.”[3] This process calls the interpreter to make a decision about his existence and to proclaim the meaning of the text and his decision in such a way that a new “event” may take place for his hearers. Everding then views some recent trends in interpretation as responses to existential hermeneutics: one stresses the meaning of history (Pannenberg); another stresses the social context (Moltmann’s “political hermeneutics”); a third is based on an analysis of language; and a fourth is interdisciplinary in character and “probes the text for the4 images of faith which shape human behavior.”[4]

Everding then identifies several implications for educational theory. Three educational goals are set forth: the student is to learn to read what the text says; the student is to learn what the text means; and the student is to gain new self-understanding in relation to the meaning of the text. This includes restructuring her way of thinking about herself and her world and the shaping of her life values.[5] The achievement of these goals calls, in his judgment, for a participatory style of teaching/learning.

Everding’s suggestions for educational theory leave much unsaid. His educational goals need further elaboration and greater precision as does his statement about the rationale for and the structures of participatory teaching/learning. Nonetheless, I believe they are on target and point us in the right direction.

The existentialist approach to hermeneutics which he seems to prefer emphasizes much which is helpful: e.g., the necessity for interpreters (teachers and students) to be aware of their presuppositions, the process of entering into vigorous conversation with the text - being addressed by it and bringing questions to it, the demand laid on the interpreter for decision, and the proclamation of one’s discovery/decision in which the former event becomes present event. Everding is aware of the tendencies of existentialist hermeneutics toward individualism and relativism but does not, in my judgment, provide adequate safeguards and controls. Nor does he criticize its anti-historical bias. →294


I believe that the experience of the early Anabaptists offers clues to an authentic model of biblical teaching in the congregation. Perhaps it is not too far from the mark to call what they were doing “Anabaptist existentialism” (in spite of the obvious anachronism) in which the triple threats to true biblical faith of individualism, relativism and anti-historicism were overcome.

Among the early Anabaptists were a number of Bible Schools, as they were called, in St. Gall and in Zurich where one Andrew Castelberger held Bible meetings teaching from the book of Romans. Later on Grebel and Manz also taught in Zürich; Grebel taught the Gospel of Matthew from the original Greek and Manz taught from the Hebrew Old Testament.[6] One has to marvel at the seriousness of purpose with which these people came to their study of the Word of God in spite of great difficulties: no lesson books, unable to read the Scriptures in their own tongue, and after a time forbidden under the threat of punishment by the law to gather in this way.

Their study of the Word of God was a serious matter. They wanted to hear its message; they wanted to know the will of God; they were diligent in searching it out. Those first Bible Schools were not only a time for knowing the Word of God; they were also times for making decisions to do the will of God. They began to ask questions about their beliefs and their customs, questions that had smoldered for a long time but which like almost extinguished burning coals burst into flame from the gust of Scripture’s fresh air.

What was the meaning of church membership? What did it mean to be a Christian? To be born from above? To be buried with Christ in baptism? To rise with him in newness of life and to walk with him in resurrection life? What actually takes place at the table of the Lord? How does one make ready for going to the table? How should one live when one has broken bread and then leaves the table to go out into the world again? How should one live as a Christian in society? What is the relation of the church to the government? What is the Christian attitude to war and military service? Who is my neighbor and how should I relate to him? What about suing at law or swearing an oath in court? These are only a few of the large and →295 difficult questions that burst into flame, questions that had been settled for years, but for which the old answers would no longer do.

This kind of Bible study is dangerous. A safer approach is simply to examine the Bible as though it were some ancient document far removed from life today, or to look for answers to the questions we bring to the text rather than to open ourselves to the questions which are placed upon us by the text and by the Lord of the text. In this kind of Bible study the questioner became the questioned. They were willing to have both their questions and answers challenged, and to be faced with new questions. They were also willing to make up their minds about those questions and to answer them forthrightly. In many instances it cost them their lives.

The key to the integrity of their approach to the Scriptures lay in the context in which they studied the Scriptures and the mindset they brought to the task. It did not lie in their intellectual superiority or in their technical skills of exegesis. Though there were a few scholars among them, they, for the most part like Jesus’ original disciples, were common folk. What distinguished them in their study of the Bible was their openness to hear God’s word of address and their readiness to respond in obedience and faith. Their Bible study took place in the context of obedience to God’s requirement as they understood it and their mission to the world into which God sent them. It was a costly obedience which did not arise out of a desire to be heroic but out of the recognition that to know God’s will is to do it. This, rather than an adherence to literalistic or legalistic ways of reading the Scriptures, is the reason for their emphasis upon discipleship.


As part of the learnings in my 1976 course, Teaching the Bible in the Congregation, I sent a request to approximately 100 pastors and teachers throughout the church asking them to reflect on some problems or issues that they had been working with in their congregation and to share those with us in the form of a question which could be included in our area examinations. The issue should be one which causes the students to reflect on their biblical, historical and theological understandings in order to work toward →296 a resolution. In addition, they were asked to identify certain biblical passages which are of an unusually complex, sensitive, crucial or controversial nature in the life of the congregation. These were to be passages which they had recently used in preaching or teaching. They were asked to indicate briefly how they had gone about interpreting such passages and how the congregation had responded to this interpretation.

Alert to such things as which texts were studied and the frequency of mention, evident hermeneutical trends or principles, and evidence of how congregations responded (resistance, indifference, conflict, agreement), we (the class) looked for the hermeneutic at work in the congregations, especially how the Bible is being interpreted in relation to life. The 34 replies (19 MC, 15 GC)[7] provided us with current data about living congregational agenda, and especially the context and the mindset in which biblical interpretation is going on in these congregations.

Several reported use of Old Testament texts such as Genesis 1-11, Exodus 19-24, The Psalms, Ezekiel and Daniel. Most, however, reported use of New Testament texts with a heavy concentration on Matthew (esp. chs. 5 and 19, followed by chs. 18 and 28); the book of Romans (esp. ch. 13); 1 Corinthians (esp. chs. 7, 11, and 12) and Revelation (esp. chs. 13 and 21). Matthew, Romans, 1 Corinthians and Revelation seem to represent the current Mennonite teaching canon, at least in these 34 congregations. Additional texts included Mark 10:1-12, Acts 15, Ephesians 5:21-31; Hebrews; 1 Peter 4:19; 3:1-7; and 1 John. Issues repeatedly identified were family life issues, baptism and church membership, the Christian’s relation to government, the charismatic movement, the structuring of congregational life, the mission of the local church in its community, conflict resolution, prophecy, and various ethical and life style concerns.

In the area of family life issues, the question of marriage, divorce and remarriage was mentioned by at least 12 persons. Related issues were headship in the home, singleness as over against marriage, the Christian interpretation of sexuality, premarital sexual standards, sexual infidelity, sexual ethics, abortion, marriage preparation and death and dying.

The issue of baptism and church membership included questions on how to deal with fringe, non-resident and inactive members, how to respond to →297 persons who wish to receive baptism without becoming a member of the congregation, the need for repentance and conversion and the importance of church discipline.

The issue of the relationship to government included such matters as capital punishment, the Christian and war, the payment of war taxes, nationalism, the prophetic role of the church and the peace witness.

In connection with the charismatic movement, questions about institutionalism vs. the exercise of charismatic gifts, the ministry of the Holy Spirit, baptism in the Spirit, and speaking in tongues were raised.

With respect to the structuring of congregational life concerns mentioned were the need for renewal, decision-making in the congregation, leadership, authority, unity and diversity, discipline, worship, the role of women in the church, and stewardship. A concern about symbolism in regard to footwashing and the wearing of the devotional veiling was also evident . Nine persons mentioned that they are struggling with the question of the veiling.

Several persons mentioned the question of prophecy, expressing concern about the impact of Hal Lindsey in their congregation as well as the Zionist view of events in the Middle East. There was strong interest in studying the book of Revelation. The impact of the sects, like Armstrongism, the Jehovah Witnesses and the Mormons on Mennonites was also identified.

In the category of various ethical and life style issues concerns such as gambling, lotteries, the use of alcohol, dancing, and the stewardship of our increasing wealth were included.

One person mentioned that he was including in his preaching/teaching such personal issues as anger, anxiety and forgiveness. A few were dealing with doctrinal themes such as the nature of man, the nature of God, sin, fall, and creation.

I selected the responses of the five persons who made their hermeneutical procedures most explicit. In their responses I saw the following principles of biblical interpretation at work (not all of them in every situation, of course):

1. The assumption that the Bible speaks with authority to the issues and questions we face in our situation today. →298

2. The vital interaction and interpenetration of the text with the living community of faith.

3. The insights of the biblical scholar (the teacher) and his scholarship should be offered to the congregation for testing rather than as the final word.

4. The assumption that the Holy Spirit plays a crucial role in the illumination of the meaning of the text and its application to our situation.

5. The recognition that the Word, the Spirit and the church must agree as to the meaning of the text for us.

6. The expectation that there must be decision and response to what we discern together, i.e., the recognition that the Bible touches life.

7. The recognition that our culture affects the way we hear and respond to the Bible.

8. The recognition that the culture of the biblical world affects the way the text is shaped and that we must understand the historical and cultural context of the text.

9. The importance of a framework of biblical history and theology within which to interpret particular texts.

10. The attention to literary forms and types as crucial to discerning the message of the text.

11. Attention to the process at work within the text itself in addressing the situation at hand.

12. The recognition of some of the obstacles to hearing the word of the Lord together (lack of love, lack of commitment, polarity, defensiveness, disobedience, arrogance, individualism).

One respondent submitted a two page outline entitled, “How I Handled a Controversial Passage, 1 Cor. 11:2-11.” His hermeneutical procedure included the following steps:

1. He identified the background issues.

2. He dealt with the passage as part of a series on the whole book, not in isolation.

3. He illustrated from the text itself how Paul went about discerning the mind of Christ.

4. He identified his principles of interpretation: (a) What, if anything does Jesus say on the question? (b) What are Paul’s best insights and judgments on the question? (c) What does the Spirit seem to be saying? (d) What is the best counsel of the brotherhood? →299

5. He identified the current issues and voices on the question.

6. He looked at the larger biblical context (other texts on the same issues).

7. He examined the cultural-social context and drew comparisons between then and now (the biblical world and our world.

8. He identified the central issue.

9. With the use of an overhead projector he drew two models elaborating the central issue. These models were attempts to state the biblical pattern in current terms. He identified one as the correct view and one as an incorrect view.

10. Following the sermon presentation he engaged in a discussion with members of the congregation who were interested in continuing the discussion through the second hour.

11. He stated that he offered his interpretation in a spirit of humility as one interpretation only, subject to the testing of the congregation.


Teaching the Bible in the congregation is like producing a drama. As learners we begin by sitting in the audience while the action unfolds on the stage. We observe God’s call to Abraham, the deliverance of the slaves from Egypt, the covenant at Sinai, the exile, the promise of the deliverer, the birth of Christ and his suffering, death and resurrection. Suddenly we discover that we are no longer in the audience but up on the stage, participants in the drama surrounded by the saints of all the ages. Or to change the image, we come out of the bleachers down on the field as players in the game. Or to change the image once again, we leave the television set where the war is portrayed on the screen, enlist in the army and go to the front to fight in the real war (Eph. 6:12).

What these biblical images of athlete and soldier suggest to me is that learning, in the biblical sense, is best accomplished in the context of engagement, involvement, participation. I really don’t have much to suggest by way of changing our congregational study programs. By and large we have fairly good quarterlies and elective materials and, for the most part, we have teachers who are dedicated, sincere men and women of God who give marginal time in preparation →300 and teaching as they are able. The problem, as I see it, is not with the materials or the method; and it is not with the content, but with the context. If we are studying a set of issues because we desperately need that information to help us make a decision, and if we are in a situation where we must act on the basis of that information and decision, we will be virtually engaged with the material. Where the teaching program of the congregation is weak and anemic it may be because Bible study (and congregational life generally) is taking place in an inauthentic context. That is to say, if the congregation is not involved vitally in its mission in the world there will be no real questions on that congregation’s agenda. In that event their Bible study may also lack integrity.

Another reason for some of the criticism of our adult Sunday school classes may lie in the area of inappropriate expectations. The adult Sunday school class is not, nor should it be, a seminary class with the kind of academic rigor that characterizes such a school. The Sunday school should be less oriented toward the academic end of the teaching/learning continuum and more toward the decision/action/ obedience end. The Sunday school class is a community of conversation around the Scriptures. Its task is to build a common Christian vocabulary and to clarify the Christian meanings of that vocabulary. It should provide a place where the members test the purpose of their lives and the implications of their decisions, where an ethical consensus is developed both in formal and informal ways, and where members find a way to view and interpret the world in which they live from a biblical perspective, an alternative to the other perspectives which surround their daily life.

The task of teaching the Bible to children is essentially that of creating biblical literacy. It includes telling them the fascinating stories of the Bible, introducing them to the biblical characters, reliving with them the biblical drama, helping them discover the covenant structure of the Bible, and aiding them in their grasp of the essentials of the biblical message. The well-known word to Timothy serves as a pattern and points to the goal to this acquaintance “with the sacred writings which are able to instruct you for your salvation through faith in Christ Jesus” (1 Tim. 3:14-15). Though the process which nurtured and instructed Timothy was family- →301 based, the same goal applies to teaching in the congregation.


Let us reflect once more upon the task of hermeneutics as it is expressed in teaching the Bible in the congregation. The basic goal of hermeneutics, as of teaching, is to clarify communication, to facilitate a conversation. The conversation we have in mind is the conversation between God and the people of God today. The medium through which God is speaking is the text of the Scriptures. Conversation is not easy, even at best when both parties are physically present in the same place at the same time speaking the same language. When the conversation is not a direct verbal one but is channeled through the medium of a written document in a foreign language it becomes more difficult. When that document is an ancient text reflecting a conversation that is several thousand years old addressed to other principals than the present readers, and in a life situation very different in many respects from that of the readers, conversation becomes increasingly complex. The task of the facilitator of this conversation, who stands between the parties in conversation while at the same time being a party to the conversation, is well nigh impossible. Yet this is the challenge of the task of teaching.

The teacher operates on the assumption that this conversation can come alive in the congregation and that once again the living Lord of the text will speak through the text to his people now. The historical document records that original conversation. The task of interpretation has as its goal the revival of that original conversation. The task of reconstructing the ancient text and deciphering its meaning in its original setting is not the end of the process but one 3f the means to the end, a living conversation. We reconstruct the original conversation so that we may participate in it.

This requires not only all the cognitive skills of which we are capable in reconceptualizing the original conversation but also the rebirth of the imagination which produced the language which was the medium of that conversation. The early communities were shaped by a living response to the Lord who addressed them. The images by which they communicated were born out of their life together in covenant. The →302 community of faith today shall only be able to understand those images as it participates in that same response to the living Lord and shares in that same covenant out of which the images emerged. An analysis of that language without a rebirth of the experience to which it bears witness will be somewhat empty, like form without substance.

This is why there must be some continuity between the early and the present contexts. Certainly there are discontinuities between these two worlds and we are sufficiently aware of these that no documentation is required. But there can be sufficient continuity at the point where it matters most to enable us to join in that conversation. The agenda with which the congregation wrestles today may differ in certain details from the agenda of the congregations of the first century, for example. But if our agenda arises out of our faithfulness to the Lord as we hear him speak and as we respond in faith, love and obedience, we shall be able to listen and to speak as full participants in their conversation.


§ This essay was published in Essays in Biblical Interpretation: Anabaptist-Mennonite Perspectives, ed. Willard M. Swartley (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1984), pp. 291-302. Copyright © 1984 Institute of Mennonite Studies. All rights reserved. Published online by permission of Institute of Mennonite Studies.

# These numerical notations indicate the page breaks in the published book. When citing this essay, please cite the appropriate page number(s) in the published book.

  1. Marvin J. Taylor, ed., Foundations for Christian Education in an Era of Change (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1976), p. 41.
  2. Ibid., pp. 42-43.
  3. Ibid., p. 47.
  4. Ibid., p. 49.
  5. Ibid., pp. 49-50.
  6. J. C. Wenger, Glimpses of Mennonite History and Doctrine (Scottdale, Pa.: Herald Press, 1949), pp. 23-4.
  7. These replies came from congregations in eleven states and four provinces distributed as follows: Ontario, 6; Pennsylvania, 5; Iowa, Kansas and Manitoba, 3 each; Colorado, Ohio, Oregon and Saskatchewan, 2 each; and Alberta, Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Nebraska and Oklahoma, 1 each.