Editor's Note: The following is a report on the practical applications of Tim Conder & Daniel Rhodes's book, Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community, (Baker Books).
There can be a limit to how much you can gain from reading and interpreting the Bible on your own. But when you do so in community with people, you might discover much more within the pages of God's Word.
Here's how the Holy Spirit can help you can interpret the Bible as part of a community of believers:
Look through new lenses. The various "interpretive lenses" (biases) that each person has shape the way they interpret the Bible. Be aware of your own biases that lead you to emphasize certain conclusions and assertions, while discounting or ignoring other possibilities. Some of these may include the lenses of:
- "Systemic theology" (your organized system of belief) which may lead you to try to fit Scripture into your existing beliefs rather than letting Scripture shape your beliefs),
- "Science and the scientific method," which may lead you to try to force all Scripture to fit the criteria of scientific facts and rejecting that which goes beyond that into the realm of faith,
- "Rights and causes," which may lead you to read Scripture to affirm and ordain your way of life and the causes you stand for - making God all about what you want, without noticing His call to you to change,
- "Success and growth," which may lead you to assume that your faith should lead to greater wealth and push you to manipulate Scripture to justify a materialistic lifestyle,
- "Nationalism and sentimentality," which may lead you to trivialize Scripture's scope by reducing its cosmic and transcendent message to one that supports national ideas (such as: "America is God's favored nation") or sentimental concepts (such as "People used to fear God in the good old days"),
- "Moralism and heroism," which may lead you to reduce Scripture to simply a collection of moral principles and heroic characters rather than noticing God's redemptive work in the midst of great human failure, and
- "Tribal loyalty," which may lead you to place limits on Scripture to try to make it align only with your particular church denomination's perspective
When you read and discuss the Bible within a community of other people, you can break out of your biases and look through new lenses at Scripture's meaning.
Let the words come off the page and shape your life. Keep in mind that God's Word is alive and dynamic, not dead and stagnant. It has the power to change you as you read, discuss, interpret, and apply it with others. Approach the Bible as canon by remembering that its stories don't fit neatly together and therefore must be studied well. Respect its catholicity by remembering that many generations of people have read and interpreted it throughout history, and your culture and context differs from theirs. Learn how to practice and embody Scripture's messages in your own community well.
Pursue reconciliation with others. You need to reconcile relationships with other people in your community so you all can be free to interpret the Bible together well. Be willing to forgive and serve each other while relying on God's love working through you daily. Then you won't have unnecessary barriers standing in the way of discovering Scripture's meaning together.
Let Scripture take on a voice of its own as you listen together. Discussing what meanings of you hears in Scripture as you listen to it in community helps expand and deepen your interpretation. The Bible passage can become a prayer for all of you, connecting you with each other and God.
Discover something new about familiar texts. The diversity of responses to familiar Scripture texts in community brings fresh layers of meaning to your attention. Together, you all can apply those Bible passages in new ways, as well.
Take on controversial issues. Don't hesitate to broach conversations with others about biblical topics that generate controversy. Open and honest dialogue about issues such as homosexuality can help everyone involved wrestle thoughtfully and prayerfully with God's Word.
Give people plenty of opportunities to participate. Schedule a series of conversation sessions each week to invite everyone in your church community to discuss biblical perspectives on the week's sermon, timely articles, and anything else that's currently impacting your community. Give people the chance to speak about how their own experiences may relate to the topic you're discussing. Learn from other people's unique perspectives on Scripture (such as hearing someone who was once abused discuss injustice, or hearing a poor person discuss poverty). Hold each other accountable to speak in loving ways, and ask thoughtful and respectful questions.
Move beyond ethics to changed lives. Encourage each other to see how the Bible offers much more than just simple ethical principles to follow. As you interpret it together, you'll find out how God is working in complex ways in each person's life to transform them from the inside out.
Embrace hospitality. Read and discuss the Bible over meals at each other's homes whenever possible. As you open your lives up more to each other, you'll find that you'll be able to open yourself up more to God, as well. Share each other's stories and how those stories relate to the Scripture you're interpreting. Your various perspectives will expand the text's meaning for you all.
Learn to give your best to your mission. When you discuss Scripture with others, you must learn to let go of defensive attitudes and be willing to let others motivate, encourage, and hold you accountable as you live out your God-given mission. Listen to the call to pursue something more important than your own concerns. Offer your life to God by serving others in your community and beyond.
Use your imagination. Encourage each other to discover new perspectives on Scripture texts that pull you into seeing God, each other, and life in fresh ways. Suspend the rules of rational thought and detach yourselves from cultural norms to free yourselves to be creative when discussing the possible meanings of various passages. Look forward to what you'll learn together as you use the imagination God gave you to get deeper into the Bible's stories.
Adapted from Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community, copyright Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes. Published by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, Grand Rapids, Mich., www.bakerbooks.com.
Tim Conder is a founding member of Emergent Village, the founding pastor of emerging church plant Emmaus Way in Raleigh/Durham, and the author of The Church in Transition. Conder lives in North Carolina.
Daniel Rhodes is a pastor at Emmaus Way and a ThD student at Duke Divinity School. Rhodes lives in North Carolina.