Tag Archives: obedience

What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How To Use the Bible

This past weekend I was blessed to attend most of the Anabaptist Identity Conference, held this year near Napannee, Indiana. This was the 10th AIC, and it lived up to its reputation as an event which gathers a provocative diversity of speakers and listeners.

We heard an Amish speaker (David Kline) explain the benefits of organic farming, and during one meal I sat across the table from a retired Goshen College history professor (Theron Schlabach). David Bercot shared with surprising candor his experience of how hard it is for most non-Anabaptists to ever join an Anabaptist church, given our cultural additives and our reluctance to let “outsiders” have a meaningful voice in shaping our churches. In contrast, Matthias Overholt, dressed in a plain brown suit and sporting a massive beard, animatedly preached the importance of “visible reminders that we are not a part of the world’s culture.” Beachy, Hutterite, Charity, Holdeman, MCUSA, Old Order Amish, New Order Amish, first-generation Anabaptists, unidentified plain Mennonites, and more–we all mingled without bickering for a few days and enjoyed GMO-free meals together. Some even traveled all the way from Down Under just to learn more about the Kingdom that turned the world upside down. Organized by the hippy-Anabaptist Overholt brothers, it was an earthy little bit of heaven on earth.

I don’t plan to give a detailed report of the weekend. The talks should soon be posted online here so you can listen and ponder for yourself. [Edit: See also the reviews by Rich Preheim and Theron Schlabach at the Mennonite World Review.] It would be interesting to discuss John D. Martin’s remarks about participatory church meetings  and observance of the Lord’s Supper (we need more of both) and Chester Weaver’s observations about how we have been shaped by Fundamentalism (some pro, mostly con). Suffice it to say that throughout the entire weekend I sometimes said “Amen,” I sometimes shook my head and agonized over error, and I always enjoyed the immersion education experience.

So, keeping things fairly general and naming names judiciously, here are some things I learned at AIC 2015 about how to use or not use the Bible in our preaching and teaching.

  1. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Dean Taylor’s favorite question is so helpful: “What if Jesus really meant every word he said?” We need to hear more, not less, about following in Jesus’ steps, obeying his call to radical discipleship. The AIC always does well at this, and for that I am grateful.
  2. Don’t pit Jesus against Paul. I overheard one of the speakers in conversation, suggesting that it might be wise to place less emphasis on Paul’s writings. I believe he was suggesting that focusing on Paul’s writings tends to increase church conflict and distract us from following Jesus. I think this is a sad misunderstanding. I’ve written at length about this in my essay “Red Letter Reductionism,” which you can find here.
  3. Do emphasize that obedience is crucial. Head knowledge without obedience is useless. Preach the Sermon on the Mount! Keep James in the canon, for sure! And don’t hide disobedience behind either theological sophistication or a plain suit and cape dress. Again, AIC generally does very well on this point.
  4. Don’t say theology is unimportant. I heard one AIC speaker say “We are not theologians.” Another speaker (David Bercot) had a book on display entitled Will the Theologians Please Sit Down? (Full disclosure: I have not read the book through, so I may be wrong; but my sense from the title, excerpts, and some reports is that the book is not as well-balanced as some of Bercot’s other books. At minimum, I sense some readers are using it to bolster an unhealthy whole-sale rejection of theology.) Ironically, every one of the AIC speakers is obviously a theologian himself! This was evident by the multiple explanations (sometimes generalizations) of how Anabaptist soteriology (theology of salvation) and ecclesiology (theology of church) is different from that of Protestants. Theology is inescapable and essential.
  5. Do learn from historical examples of interpreting and obeying the Bible. One of AIC’s greatest strengths is its emphasis on history. Chester Weaver’s talks on Russian Mennonites were fascinating! AIC always includes such historical talks. Incidentally, the discipline of studying how the church in the past has understood and obeyed the Scriptures is called historical theology–more evidence that AIC is full of theology, despite some protests to the contrary.
  6. Don’t rely more on history than on the Scriptures. One of AIC’s greatest weaknesses is its emphasis on history. (No, I am not contradicting myself.) AIC speakers are very concerned with statistics about how few Anabaptist children have remained in the churches of their parents. They trace the patterns of the past and issue warnings about the future. Make no mistake: I definitely share some of their concerns. But I am even more concerned when I hear almost no appeal to Scripture during a panel discussion on how cultural traditions affect our ability to pass on the faith and integrate non-Anabaptists. (I raised my hand too slowly to add my question: How should 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 affect both our approach as witnesses and also our goals for the kind of self-identity that we want our disciples to adopt?) Some AIC talks referenced much Scripture faithfully and effectively. Others, not so much.
  7. Do shape your sermons around Scripture. One of the best AIC talks this year was one by Ernest Strubhar, where he traced through the whole Bible the big story of the war of Satan against God. This is theology–biblical theology! Some of Strubhar’s Bible texts are notoriously difficult to interpret, and I quibbled with a handful of details in his sermon. But the big picture that he painted was faithful and powerful, providing a real hopeful foundation for radical discipleship.
  8. Don’t pull Scripture out of context to bolster your own claims. Unfortunately, another sermon this past weekend did not use Scripture so faithfully. By his own admission, the speaker’s key text was used out of context, with key words being interpreted differently than what they actually meant. This text was used to structure the speaker’s entire sermon. In this way, the speaker brought an aura of Scriptural authority to his own ideas, using God’s word to make his own words sound more convincing. This is very dangerous indeed. Ironically, the real meaning of the speaker’s text, when read in context, actually undermines (in my estimation) one of the speaker’s main claims!
  9. Do invite others to critique your Bible teaching. This is another strength of AIC. After each talk there is a brief Q and A session. The Overholt brothers do a good job as moderators, allowing and encouraging honest feedback and questioning. The speakers also welcome this, evidencing grace and humility. Mutual critique is also built into the roster of speakers, since they represent a variety of backgrounds. It would be good to see more of this feedback encouraged in our regular church meetings!
  10. Don’t pit the Scriptures against Christ. Several times at AIC 2015 there was an evident tension between the Written Word and the Living Word. Several times questioners felt a need to ask a speaker to clarify himself on this point. But it is irrational to try to know a person while downplaying his words. The liberal modernists of a century ago claimed that we could follow the Christ of faith even if it was impossible to gain certainty about the Jesus of history. They believed that the Scriptural accounts of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection could not be trusted, yet they tried to salvage a mystical Christian faith. Today we can see where “Christ” without Scripture has led the churches that embraced this liberal modernism. I think all the AIC speakers would eagerly affirm the trustworthiness of Scripture. But true trust involves more than affirming that Scripture is true; it also involves drawing our own conceptions of Christ and his kingdom from the full Scriptural witness. Some of the AIC speakers do this very well. Others didn’t always display as much functional reliance on Scripture as I would have liked.
  11. Do call each other to passionately follow Jesus. Okay, this is a repeat of my first point, but worth repeating. This is AIC’s greatest strength, and it is the very best way that you can use the Bible in your own preaching and teaching.

I came away from AIC 2015 with multiple blessings, including a renewed desire to live among a body of believers that listens well to the Written Word as a vital witness to the Living Word. I wouldn’t feel at home in every church group represented at AIC. But I am thankful to all the speakers for honestly sharing their hearts and prodding us to better follow Jesus.

Do you have anything to add to this list? What would it look like if you made a similar list based on how the Bible is used in your church pulpit? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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3 Lessons from the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35)

 (Old Facebook Post – Lightly edited and reposted May 31, 2015)

I recently heard a sermon based on the story of the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35), who faithfully obeyed the commands of their ancestor Jonadab, who lived several hundred years earlier and commanded them not to drink wine, etc. (See the end of this post to read the story for yourself.) I’ve pondered this story some since hearing that sermon, and here are my thoughts.

We can learn three lessons from this story. The first lesson is the lesson that is most central to the Jeremiah passage, but it is sometimes barely noticed by preachers and teachers. The second lesson is also noted briefly by the Bible, and is usually given due attention by preachers. The third lesson is not mentioned in the Jeremiah passage at all, but sometimes becomes the central theme of pastors who chose this text—especially conservative pastors, including conservative Anabaptists.

In reverse order, here are the three lessons:

Lesson 3 is based on the example of Jonadab, father of the Rechabites, who established rules for his descendents. These rules (don’t drink wine, build houses, or possess vineyards) separated his descendants from wicked Israelite society and, it is said, preserved his family for generations to come. The application is often made that we fathers (and perhaps churches) should imitate him and set rigorous rules for our own descendents—rules which call them to remain obviously and arbitrarily different and distant from surrounding culture. Problem: the text never once affirms either Jonadab’s rule-setting or the inherent value of any of his rules. Why didn’t God set these rules for the entire nation before they ever entered Canaan, instead of promising wine and houses and vineyards as blessings? Why didn’t Jeremiah learn from these rules and command the faithful remnant in Israel to start following the Rechabite rules? Why didn’t Jeremiah himself follow these rules? We are explicitly told that Jeremiah was commanded by God to buy a field, as proof that “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land” after the exile (Jer. 32:15). Actually, the main point of the passage (Lesson 1) is strengthened by the fact that these rules were only man-made and did not necessarily have any intrinsic value. As Tremper Longman III writes: “God never required such a mode of living; these seem to be human laws. Whether their mode of life was right or not is not the issue in this chapter, however. It rather has to do with the quality of their obedience” (Jeremiah, Lamentations, New International Biblical Commentary series, 232). This observation leads us to the next two lessons.

Lesson 2 is based on the exceptional quality of the obedience of the Rechabite descendents to their ancestor Jonadab. This is emphasized in the text when God promises that they will be rewarded by never failing to have a man to stand before him. Notice he does not promise that their obedience to Jonadab’s rules will preserve the whole family from sliding into the sins of surrounding culture; only that Jonadab will always have at least one survivor serving God. One application of this lesson would be the value of honoring and obeying our own parents.

Lesson 1 is based on the contrast between Jonadab and God. This is an argument from the lesser to the greater: If the Rechabites faithfully obey laws that are merely man-made, then how much more should Israel obey laws that were given by God himself! Longman writes that the Rechabite “obedience to conscience is commended, but the point is that this requirement is one imposed by a human authority figure. While the Recabites obey their forefather, the rest of the people do not obey God himself” (234). The application for us today parallels the lesson God intended for ancient Israel: We should faithfully obey all that God has commanded us to do, eager to “receive instruction and listen to [his] words” (Jer. 35:13). In particular, we should respond with ready obedience when God calls us to repentance, for his promises of deliverance and his warnings of judgment far exceed anything that accompany obedience to any merely human commands. This call to repent and obey God’s own words is the true reason why God called Jeremiah’s attention to the Rechabites in the first place. Therefore, it should also be the main lesson we draw from their example today.

Here is the story of the Rechabites, from Jeremiah 35 (ESV). Read it for yourself to test my observations:

The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord in the days of Jehoiakim the son of Josiah, king of Judah: “Go to the house of the Rechabites and speak with them and bring them to the house of the Lord, into one of the chambers; then offer them wine to drink.” So I took Jaazaniah the son of Jeremiah, son of Habazziniah and his brothers and all his sons and the whole house of the Rechabites. I brought them to the house of the Lord into the chamber of the sons of Hanan the son of Igdaliah, the man of God, which was near the chamber of the officials, above the chamber of Maaseiah the son of Shallum, keeper of the threshold. Then I set before the Rechabites pitchers full of wine, and cups, and I said to them, “Drink wine.” But they answered, “We will drink no wine, for Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, commanded us, ‘You shall not drink wine, neither you nor your sons forever. You shall not build a house; you shall not sow seed; you shall not plant or have a vineyard; but you shall live in tents all your days, that you may live many days in the land where you sojourn.’ We have obeyed the voice of Jonadab the son of Rechab, our father, in all that he commanded us, to drink no wine all our days, ourselves, our wives, our sons, or our daughters, and not to build houses to dwell in. We have no vineyard or field or seed, 10 but we have lived in tents and have obeyed and done all that Jonadab our father commanded us. 11 But when Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came up against the land, we said, ‘Come, and let us go to Jerusalem for fear of the army of the Chaldeans and the army of the Syrians.’ So we are living in Jerusalem.”

12 Then the word of the Lord came to Jeremiah: 13 “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Go and say to the people of Judah and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, Will you not receive instruction and listen to my words? declares the Lord. 14 The command that Jonadab the son of Rechab gave to his sons, to drink no wine, has been kept, and they drink none to this day, for they have obeyed their father’s command. I have spoken to you persistently, but you have not listened to me. 15 I have sent to you all my servants the prophets, sending them persistently, saying, ‘Turn now every one of you from his evil way, and amend your deeds, and do not go after other gods to serve them, and then you shall dwell in the land that I gave to you and your fathers.’ But you did not incline your ear or listen to me. 16 The sons of Jonadab the son of Rechab have kept the command that their father gave them, but this people has not obeyed me. 17 Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: Behold, I am bringing upon Judah and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem all the disaster that I have pronounced against them, because I have spoken to them and they have not listened, I have called to them and they have not answered.”

18 But to the house of the Rechabites Jeremiah said, “Thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Because you have obeyed the command of Jonadab your father and kept all his precepts and done all that he commanded you, 19 therefore thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Jonadab the son of Rechab shall never lack a man to stand before me.”

What do you think? What can we learn does God intend for us to learn from this story? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


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