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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21 thoughts on “What I Learned at AIC 2015 about How To Use the Bible”

  1. I’ve never heard of this conference but I wish I was there (except, oops, I’m a woman and given the cast of characters you listed, I’m not sure of my welcome). I have heard of Kline (and actually follow him on Twitter). Thanks for the summary.

    1. Christine, you would have been most welcome. There were plenty of ladies there. A few were even on stage doing some “pre-singing”–the Holdeman term for “special singing,” which was deemed to be a less offensive expression for the AIC audience. 🙂 Check the AIC website for recordings of all past conferences. I’m not sure whether Kline spoke before or not. Thanks for the comment!

      1. Yes, but did the women pipe up? (I’m not so foolish as to ask if they were part of the organizing panel, moderated or presented).

        Btw, apparently Kline recently presented in Linwood, ON (which I didn’t realize until the weekend after). I’d love to introduce him a friend, Ralph Martin (yup… former St Jacobs boy) who is currently the Chair of Sustainable Agriculture at the U of Guelph. I figure that would be a conversation worth eavesdropping on.

        1. No, Christine, I didn’t hear the women pipe up. At least not during the meetings. All my travel mates were male, too, so I haven’t heard any female response to AIC. I would enjoy that.

          I like your proposed meeting between David Kline and Ralph Martin. 🙂

  2. Dwight this is the second year that I have observed at least one of the topics to be centred around organics and I found your mention of non GMO foods interesting.
    Is it being implied at these meetings that you may not quite be Anabaptist if you are not into the whole organic non GMO thing? If so that really saddens me.

    1. Interesting question, Steve. I don’t think I observed anything quite as extreme as you fear. What I did hear is this:
      (1) Descriptions of how Anabaptists who moved into Alsace brought innovative farming methods (crop rotation, manure as fertilizer) that improved the quality of the soil and increased crop yields. I also heard that Mennonites who moved into Russia brought similar agricultural improvements to that land. So there is a tradition of care for the land that goes quite far back in Anabaptist history, if not to the first few generations.
      (2) Nathan Overholt distributed a handout accompanying his talk. The handout is called “Global Concerns Related to Anabaptist Living.” I agree with some of his concerns, but you would not be the first to wonder how intrinsically Anabaptist or biblical some of the thoughts are, or to suggest that more evidence should be brought to the discussion. I’ll post some excerpts here (without corrections) for your assessment:
      ———–
      We as conservative Anabaptists claim to have the ‘all things’ and are mostly content, to say the least in our stance. However, it is quite possible we are most worldly minded than we dare imagine.

      Do we excommunicate members for to tobacco usage, that harmless green leaf created by God, dried and rolled by man to provide a form of recreation or to be used as a pesticide, or do we shun homemade wine or medicinal whiskey, and look down on some conservative groups who haven’t taken such a ‘progressive and modern’ approach to these ‘deadly sins’? And yet, do we drink coffee, consume white sugar and white flour in prodigious quantities, drink Pepsi and Coca-Cola products, eat tons of fast food, use GMO (Genetically Modified) seed eat GMO food (70 -80 % of grocery story products), own concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFO’s), rape the soil of all nutrients with mono-cropping and chemical fertilizers, pollute our aquifers with atrizine and glyphosate (Roundup), stealing from our children’s future? Do we contribute to farming’s pollution of our streams, rivers and oceans with our harmful soil management and manure handling practices, contributing to the dead one in the Gulf of Mexico currently the size of the state of New Jersey? Do we farm with government subsidies, crop plans and insurances, consume fossil fuels and purchase commodities at the same rate as the Gentiles around us, unmindful of the dull, distant cries of the greater world, who struggle daily on a bare subsistence level?

      What can we offer a world that is hungry for solutions and answers to current global concerns? How could we get back to a simple gospel that included the understanding of the foundational truth that the manner and methods with which we approach the handling of our soil, directly impact with the same counterbalances our understanding of and subsequently our methodology in how we relate to our fellow human being?

      Aren’t we therefore worldly and approaching the point of being immoral and pagan?
      ——-
      He repeats some of these same concerns near the end of his paper, under the heading “Things we can do today that will make a difference.” Examples: “Say no to GMO’s… from seeds to the processed product.” “Use more ‘real’ horse power.” “Recycle / Humanure / Reduce carbon footprint.” “Encourage lifestyles that welcome children, saying no to birth control. (The devil wants to kill the troops, God wants arrows flung.)” Perhaps now you know why I called the Overholt brothers hippy-Anabaptists. I like hippies, by the way, and think they have things to teach us, so that is intended to be descriptive rather than pejorative.

      I like Nathan’s passion for believing that the gospel affects every aspect of our lives. I think you are right to question how many of these are distinctly Anabaptist ideas. And I suspect you’re one Anabaptist who doesn’t identify with all the ideas he is affirming. 🙂

      1. Yes those comments could keep me going for a long time but I do not want to derail your very good blog with a discussion on organics.
        There is so much in those comments that do just beg a response though not the least being that somehow innovation was alright in the 1600s but apparently not today.
        Also that fighting against GMOs may actually be the single biggest thing we can do to hurt developing countries. But the rest will have to wait for the next time you are in this neck of the woods over a cup of coffee. It can even be organic fair trade coffee if you actually believe there is such a thing 🙂

  3. In my mind it is hard to argue that synthetic fertilizer, beginning with Nitrogen around the turn of the 19th century, didn’t achieve great good in the last 115 or so. The Ag output made possible by all the facets of 20th century industrialization, in my view brings glory to God through the technical innovation of man. And I am pretty sure many, otherwise starving people in the 20th century would agree, dead zone in the gulf, not with-standing.

    But then, I am mostly a modernist when considering the innovation of God’s greatest creation, man.

    As for the tobacco, wine, et al – I think Dwight makes well the point that it is silly to get riled about these when obesity in general is at least as serious a problem, and probably more so. I am for healthy living…a bit of white sugur, GMO’s, and gluten, tobacco, wine…in moderation won’t likely cause long term damage in my view.

    I agree with Steve though, to frame Anabaptism, and feature at AIC these sorts of talks, seems misapplied to me. It is fashionable currently among the “intelligentsia,” the hipsters, and the Park Slope folks, to critique modernism. And the more “out there folks” openly decry world population growth and the modernization and industrialization that made it possible.

    Should we concern ourselves with healthy living? Yes. Should we make non-gmo food a tenet of Anabaptism, I say no.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Joshua. I don’t feel prepared to discuss the pros and cons of industrialized agriculture. I’m sure there is some of both, but (a) I don’t have a good handle on how much of each and (b) I don’t want to debate that topic in this forum. I applaud the vision that the gospel touches every aspect of our lives, including the economic structures we often take for granted. (Was it a blessing or a curse to others that I bought my last glasses online, made in China? Valid question that I don’t have an answer for.) But I probably won’t lead the efforts to headline agriculture critique as a primary element of the definition of “Anabaptist.” Time will tell! By then I’ll probably be gone and just grateful to be counted as “Christian,” without worrying much about “Anabaptist.” 🙂

  4. I am sorry I missed this, living very close to Napannee already, but I appreciated your summary and look forward to the audio being released soon. However I am glad to have been introduced to your webpage via the link to the helpful summary above!

      1. As you can tell, in my case quantity does not equal quality. I really like the Sabbath post, I have some thoughts to share on that when I am not in the midst of the flu but I have experienced a lot of the “flat Bible” phenomenon in conservative Anabaptist circles as well as among the Reformed.

  5. I listened to a CD of Chester Weaver’s talk on the effects of Fundamentalism on the Anabaptist people and found his analysis quite conflicted. Mr. Weaver covered himself, in one sense, by stating that he would be misunderstood, but when your position is intrinsically conflicted then misunderstanding is inevitable, if not on the part of the hearer than possibly on the part of the speaker.

    It seems to me that Mr. Weaver, however unwittingly, drives a wedge between Christ as the living Word and the Word of God of written. Fundamentalists or Protestants prioritize the Bible over Christ, according to Weaver, whereas historic Anabaptism, as he sees it, placed its emphasis on a relationship with the living Christ. Weaver asserts his belief in the inspiration of Scripture, but then criticizes Protestants, who confess his very own view of inspiration, for earnestly contending over what the Word of God actually says.

    One point to reflect upon:

    How do you know a person without listening to what He says? How can you have a relationship with a person without paying attention to what he reveals about himself? Now, Mr. Weaver will say that indeed we must hear Jesus speaking in the Gospels, but the Word of God written is much more than what appears in red letters in some Bibles. The entire Scripture, the canonical 66 Books, are the Word of God written, not just what is recorded of Christ’s words in the four gospels. So if we would truly know Christ, we must also receive God’s Word through the apostles Paul and Peter and John, etc. (The problem for Mr. Weaver is that Paul was a fighter and an arguer. He was “militant” in his opposition to false teachers, such as the Judaizers whom the apostle stridently opposes in his epistle to the Galatians. Paul did not have the “Anabaptist heart” that Mr. Weaver presses upon us. He did not simply express his opinions and gently move on).

    To conclude then – it is a fundamental mistake, an actual impossibility, to separate a relationship with the living Christ from the plenary authority of the entire Word of God written. The Fundamentalist view of the Bible is not to be rejected (while its premillenial eschatology must be). If what Paul writes, and the spirit in which he contends for the faith, does not comport with our view of Anabaptism, then it is our analysis of Anabaptism that must be amended and not the plenary authority of the Word of God written.

    Mr. Weaver would also do well to remember that the original Anabaptism of Grebel, Manz and Blaurock was a fighting faith. In the early stages of the Swiss Reformation they were right in there with Ulrich Zwingli fighting and contending over the truth of Scripture against the Romanists. They simply did not have this “Anabaptist heart” to which Mr. Weaver appeals. In fact, they finally broke away from Zwingli over an argument regarding the necessity of the immediate amendment of the mass. They said essentially, “The Spirit has already spoken in the Word of God. The Word of God decides!” So they separated from Zwingli based upon a heated disagreement over the meaning of Scripture. The fact is that Anabaptism arose in history as the result of contention, spiritual fighting and heated argument over the Word of God written. Would to God that there were more true Anabaptists today!

  6. The first lecture given at the AIC was delivered by Ernest Strubhar and I found much in his talk that resonated with my own heart. He used phrases like “authentic Chrisianity,” “apostolic Christianity,” and “Christianity as discipleship,” echoing in many ways the concerns of Harold Bender from the middle of the last century. Now, we must ask, what is the meaning of such distinctions? Why did Mr. Strubhar choose those particular words and put them together as he did?

    Mr. Strubhar looks out upon the landscape of contemporary Evangelicalism and, like many of us, sees a Christianity that is desperately foreign to the revelation of the New Testament and early Anabaptism. What passes for Christianity in the Western world today is, in a word, inauthentic. It doesn’t look like, feel like, smell like or taste like apostolic Christianity. Contemporary Evangelicalism simply doesn’t come close, it doesn’t even faintly resemble what we would expect to find among God’s people, based upon the source document of the New Testament. And I think Mr. Strubhar is registering his complaint, his grievance, his sorrow, which is my very own, that contemporary Christianity is mere belief, mere talk, mere emptiness. It is an emotional juice that one adds to a worldly life for daily inspiration or to get one over the humps of life in this hard world. In sum, the Christianity that we look out upon today is Christianity without discipleship. It is formless, shapeless and void of Lord Jesus.

    However, Mr. Strubhar’s resolution to this colossal problem has the same fatal flaw as that of Chester Weaver, I am sorry to say. They both want to diminish doctrine, creeds and propositional truth. The both think that we have ended up in this mess because of Fundamentalism’s emphasis on right doctrine and right formulations of Scripture’s teaching. We must value and prioritize a relationship with the living Word over the revealed written Word, they stress, and so escape this doctrinaire, argumentative, divisive Christianity that is so foreign to the “Anabaptist heart.” But what our friends fail to realize is that a man like J. Gresham Machen, who was the chief intellectual defender of the Faith in the Modernist-Fundamentalist controvery, would have said that his doctrinal battle with Liberalism was motivated by, inspired and catalyzed by, his great love for Jesus Christ! He saw absolutely no contradiction or inconsistency between a devout relationship with the living Word of Christ and a thoroughly engaged, doctrinal defense of the written Word. What our friends Mr. Strubhar and Mr. Weaver divide and separate, Mr. Machen held comfortably together. Machen did not divorce life and doctrine. And, more importantly, neither did the apostle Paul who wrote to his young protégé Timothy,

    “Watch your life and doctrine closely. Persevere in them, because if you do, you will save both yourself and your hearers (1 Tim 4:16).”

    What I would say to our friends is this, “Please stop divorcing what God has joined together.” There is no intrinsic conflict between a life-giving, joyful relationship with the living Christ and a passionate, rigorous, doctrinal defense of the written Word. To be fair to Mr. Strubhar, his paradigm does allow a place for truth and doctrine, but he insists that the “drive-wheel” of faith must be our relationship with Christ, as if that is somehow inconsistent with battling Liberalism over the truth of Scripture. The Fundamentalists, probably to a man, would have explained their quarrel with Liberalism as a moral obligation resulting from their love and devotion to the Lord Jesus.

    The problem with the “drive-wheel” model, asserted by Mr. Strubhar, is the hermeneutical problem of the either/or. He is assuming that we must choose between the living Word of Christ and the written Word of Scripture as our chief interpretive lens in defining the Christian faith. It’s either/or to him; EITHER the living Word of Christ OR the written Word of God ultimately defines us as Christians. But that is a false choice! For we only know of the living Word of Christ through the fullness of the written Word of God. The epistemological norm of Christianity is indeed the Son of God (Heb 1:1), but as He is interpreted to us through the apostolic witness of the 27 NT Books, which, of course, build upon and complete the 39 Books of the Hebrew Scriptures. We should not, we must not, indeed we cannot, separate Christ from the Word of God written. What is needed in this case is a both/and approach and not the either/or. We want BOTH the living Word AND the fullness of the written Word as our “drive-wheel.”

    To divorce what God has joined together is not simply unwise; it is a strange and dark maneuver. It is a calculation, as all divorces are. There is something desired on the other side of the divorce that works unseen and below the surface. Certain results and particular conclusions are deemed good and necessary, and so the divorce is justified, even if it is never self-consciously analyzed. The “good” result is what is important, even if a little trimming of the truth is necessary … so goes the subtle deception of the devil himself. Beware of divorce, my friends, in all of its insidious forms.

    To conclude then – when the truth of the Bible is under assault by pernicious, unbelieving churchmen or even when Scripture truth is being consistently distorted and undermined by otherwise good men, that is no time for what Anabaptists call “gelassenheit.” No, no, no. Paul’s counsel to Timothy is quite the opposite regarding those who teach false doctrine and mislead the people:

    “… they must be silenced … rebuke them sharply that they may be sound in the Faith (Titus 1:11-13).

    Evidently, the apostle Paul was something of a Fundamentalist himself. He did not separate, or even feel the need to distinguish between, a living, vital relationship with Christ Jesus and a passionate, confrontational, sometimes even severe opposition to the forces of compromise and distortion. And as it was with the Fundamentalists, so it was in Paul’s day, and it remains so in our own time – the chief and most dangerous forces of compromise and distortion reside in the church and they just may be wearing plain suits and long beards.

    1. Kevin, thank you for your comments. I find some of your language to be plenty strong. For example, I’m not ready to call any AIC 2015 speakers “pernicious, unbelieving churchmen,” even though I have significant disagreements with some on some points. [Edit: see correction of my misquote below.]

      But I do want to say that I agree with what seems to be your central concern: that we must not drive a wedge between Jesus and Scripture. The two are not the same, for sure–we worship Jesus and not the collection of the written words of God. But the two are certainly in full agreement. Careful study of and humble obedience to the Scriptures will draw us closer to Christ. Therefore it is certainly wrongheaded to try to solve the problem of lack of discipleship in American churches by suggesting we need not study Scripture so much. And it is especially ironic when such a “solution” leads us to take Jesus’ own words, as recorded in Scripture, out of context to support our propositions, as happened overtly in at least one AIC talk. This is honoring neither to Christ nor to the God who breathed out Scripture.

      Thank you for thinking and for sharing your thoughts. Now may God give us wisdom to know, like Jesus, when to speak and when to be silent. Or, to use other images, when to coach Apollos privately (Acts 18:25-26) and when to rebuke Peter to his face (Gal. 1:11-14), remembering always that we are likely to need the same from time to time.

  7. I regret that you took the “pernicious, unbelieving churchmen” to be a description of the AIC speakers! It was actually a reference to the Liberals of the early 20th century against whom the Fundamentalists were forced to do battle.

    1. Oops! Yes, as I read more closely, I see now that you are describing the AIC speakers in the clause “Scripture truth is being consistently distorted and undermined by otherwise good men,” as well as by the clause “those who teach false doctrine and mislead the people.” That is a more reasonable, though still extremely serious, charge. Thanks much for the clarification, and apologies for misrepresenting you.

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