The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice
1998 Church of the Brethren Statement
Whereas, we understand ourselves as those who ascribe to “another way of living,” and desire to be “continuing the work of Jesus, peacefully, simply, and together;”
Whereas, recently, Annual Conference discussions of New Testament background and support for decisions and statements have often moved in the direction of suggesting that certain important concepts and doctrines must be worded in a particular way and uniformly agreed to;
Whereas, some of our conversations appear to reflect an acceptance of popular “Americanized religion,” exhibiting cultural values upheld more by the political right and/or the political left, rather than positions informed by careful New Testament study and reflection;
Whereas, we believe it would be helpful for Annual Conference to reaffirm and/or clarify what we mean when we say, “The New Testament is our rule of faith and practice,” and to extend that discussion into what such a stance means in our relationship with one another and our use of scripture to inform Annual Conference position statements;
Therefore, we, the District Board of Middle Pennsylvania, ask Standing Committee to prepare for Annual Conference approval, a statement of interpretation on our understanding of the New Testament as our rule of faith and practice, and some suggested guidelines and encouragement for the content and character of our conversations with one another as we do business and bear witness in the spirit of Christ.
Action of the Middle Pennsylvania District Board: The District Board of Middle Pennsylvania District, meeting in regular session on September 21, 1995, passed the query on to District Conference, which will meet October 27, 1995, in New Enterprise, Pa.
Martin Hutchison, Board Chair
Randall Yoder, Recording Secretary
Action of the Middle Pennsylvania District Conference: Passed on to Annual Conference, Church of the Brethren, by the Middle Pennsylvania District Conference, meeting October 27-28, 1995, in New Enterprise, Pennsylvania.
Eric Fether, Moderator
Betty Baker, Writing Clerk
Action of the 1996 Annual Conference: Mark Flory Steury, a Standing Committee member from the Southern Ohio District, presented the recommendation from Standing Committee that the Query: The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice be adopted. The delegate body adopted the recommendation of Standing Committee.
From the Conference Secretary: In assuming its assignment to prepare a statement for Annual Conference approval, Standing Committee asked a committee of three persons to write the initial statement on its behalf. The persons appointed to this committee were: Carl Bowman, Verona, Va.; Earl W. Fike, Jr., Bridgewater, Va.; and Carol Kussart, Cerro Gordo, Ill. A statement has been written and will be an item of business for Standing Committee when it meets prior to the 1997 Annual Conference. The statement requires the action of Standing Committee before it is received as an item of business by the Annual Conference delegate body.
1997 Report to the Standing Committee
Perspectives of the Early Brethren
While the early Brethren might not have invoked the phrase, the New Testament as our rule of faith and practice, it is clear that they affirmed it in principle. The writings of Alexander Mack, Sr. convey not only a concern, but a tone of urgency, that Christ’s followers thoroughly adhere to the New Testament. More than a matter of belief, Mack wrote that if you have learned the teaching as it is outwardly commanded in the Testament, you will remain steadfast in it, and resolve to sacrifice your life, your property, family, yes, all that you have in the whole world rather than waver from his teaching. Other early sources cautioned Brethren against adding to, or subtracting from, the teachings of the New Testament. Proper under-standing of scripture, they believed, could occur only in conversation with other believers under the collective guidance of the Holy Spirit.
While we might not agree today with every tenet of the early Brethren, we owe it to them and ourselves to be as honest as we can about their approach to scripture, and avoid reading into their life our present understandings. Our study suggests the following:
- The concept of the faith community studying and interpreting the word was central. Their separation from the Pietists of their time was a rejection of individualistic discernment in favor of a community that interpreted, understood, and lived within community understandings.
- Noncreedalism was never intended to be freedom from scripture, but rather a commitment to the primacy of scripture as opposed to selected statements that condensed the faith. Brethren believed confessions of faith should be fulfilled in the manner of one’s life, a concept that was thwarted when doctrinal statements were imposed by state church membership, and were not studied by, owned by, and agreed to by individuals in the community.
- They shared a concern that formal creeds might: (a.) supplant the authority of scripture, and (b.) shut the door on their expectation of increased understanding through the work of the Holy Spirit as the community continued to faithfully study and live.
- The emphasis on the whole New Testament was not to deny the inspiration of the Old Testament. Their commitment to Jesus Christ as the one who fully reveals God gave the New Testament priority over the Old Testament as a rule of faith and practice.
- Their insistence on the whole New Testament not only supported their belief that just one individual could not be depended upon to fully interpret scripture for the whole community; it also supported their conviction that the selective use of scripture to support specific beliefs was suspect. The light of God’s revelation in the entire New Testament was required for faith and practice.
- For early Brethren, the affirmation was closely connected to their goal to restore the faith and practice of the apostles as witnessed to in the New Testament.
- The early Brethren searched for agreement in faith and practice. They did not celebrate diversity but recognized differences and lamented them. They believed that the mind of Christ was clear, and where they as a faith community were not clear, it meant they had not achieved the level of understanding expected of them as latter day apostles.
- The early Brethren believed the church had the authority to make statements of faith and practice for its members. Such statements were understood to be the mind of the community at this time ; binding agreements which stood until changed. While they were willing to reconsider matters of faith and practice and were not necessarily expected to be in accord, community members were expected to accept and to comply until change was agreed upon.
More Recent Brethren Perspectives
As the Brethren have continued to live this affirmation, new considerations have joined the original understandings. The original motivations may continue; original meanings may still live and apply; but new interpretations and understandings have emerged as the community has sought to be faithful in its search for light and life in Christ. Our study suggests the following:
- If we continue to hold this affirmation as central to our life and faith, it will, of necessity, continue to draw boundaries for the faith expressions and actions of the church and it should. There are beliefs and actions that run counter to the teachings of the New Testament, and there are beliefs and actions that are central to genuine discipleship. A faithful community at study and work will express and come to agreement on some of both.
- Any such agreements should be honored and practiced in the framework of our central New Testament commitment to be peaceful, loving, and patient in the way we relate to one another. As the community searches for agreement in faith and practice, it must practice the faith which places supreme regard for the way God loves us, and the way we express that love to one another. Humility in presenting individual opinions, courtesy in listening and responding, and charity in relation to those who disagree should all be understood as extensions of a faithful practice of the affirmation.
- To use our affirmation as support for boundless tolerance or uninspected inclusiveness is unfair to its meaning. To use our affirmation as support for judgmental exclusiveness or hasty closure on favorite issues is also unfair to its meaning. The affirmation aspires to clear and agreed upon understandings that result from faithful study and common commitment. These are to be understood as where we stand now, with openness for reconsideration as the Holy Spirit grants new light.
- The early church itself was not homogeneous in its faith and practice. This is reflected in the various perspectives of the biblical writers and the complementary views that are revealed in the New Testament. Our understanding of Jesus is both deeper and richer because of these views. Despite the fact that Christian fellowships with varying emphases existed side by side in various towns and cities, a common canon committed to the centrality of Jesus Christ was accepted. In short, there is both unity and multi-dimensionality in the New Testament. It models the way conversation can continue and enrich a growing faith and the faithful practice of a diverse community.
“The New Testament as our Rule of Faith and Practice” : A Reaffirmation
The affirmation that the “New Testament is our rule of faith and practice” is basic to who we are as Church of the Brethren members of the Body of Christ, and we recommend that Annual Conference ask for a renewed commitment to it. Such a commitment will bind the faith community, but it also leaves each of us personally with the same decision that our forbears had to make: Will I submit myself to the authority of the New Testament as a rule of faith and practice in all areas of my life? To answer “yes” is to seek the meaning and importance of such a commitment for our lives today. We suggest the following:
- It calls us to base our conversations, moral reasoning, and actions in Christ’s new covenant as revealed in the New Testament. Other sources and influences are secondary at best. To the extent that self-examination and conversation suggest a moral grounding other than the New Testament, we must question our motives and examine the consistency of such thinking with our proclaimed rule of faith and practice.
- It continues to call us to a life of study and conversation that places collective understanding and spiritual insight the voice of the Brethren above individual interpretation. This process of collective discernment accepts the Bible as Gods Word, while focusing upon Christ as the center of our faith, and praying for the Holy Spirit s guidance of our study and conversation.
- It requires us to give attention to and hold in equal importance faith and practice -what we believe and how we live it -and continues to hold scripture as the authoritative basis for both.
- It is also a positive confession about how those of us who are Brethren wish to combine belief and practice in a manner that allows us to live in keeping with the spirit and teachings of Jesus.
- While requiring faithful Bible study for old and new generations to continue to affirm historic understandings and to receive further leadings of the Spirit as we grow and mature, it also holds us to a fuller understanding of biblical interpretation than that found in any single book or passage in the New Testament.
- It lifts us beyond the temptation to selectively avoid painful or stretching passages of scripture.
- It steers us away from the searching of scripture to support a predetermined opinion or position.
- It recognizes that practical wisdom, formal education, traditional understandings, continued illumination by the Holy Spirit, personal devotion, and biblical scholarship each make a vital contribution to our interpretation of scripture. Together they afford multiple windows into the biblical text which, while sometimes difficult to reconcile, encourage us to sort through the layers of meaning that are present.
- It moves us as a faith community towards a respectful manner of conversation that recognizes there will be differences, but points us toward a higher expectation that there will be agreed-upon understandings and practices that reflect our unity in Jesus Christ.
- It is an affirmation which, at any time in history, makes us a prisoner to the responsibility of continuing a lively examination of our life in Christ, and at the same time frees us from the prison of unquestioned or stagnant understandings. It is a singularly appropriate affirmation for those who desire another way of living ; who desire to continue the work of Jesus peacefully, simply, and together.
Additional Suggestions for our Life Together
Understanding that the Spirit speaks through the gathered church requires humility in speech and an interest in hearing whatever truth may be revealed in the words of each member.
- We suggest a more courteous and modest approach to Annual Conference speech making. Such an approach includes: taking the time to listen to others, softening offensive or inflammatory remarks, and exercising self-restraint in the number of times we choose to speak.
- We suggest a review of the way we legislate microphone appearances. Our present practice encourages prepared speeches spoken in turn rather than an open interchange of ideas. What we hear is a series of monologues. It is almost impossible to respond directly to another’s speech.
- A peaceful and loving spirit requires a change in our attitude about Annual Conference business. We should cease thinking of Annual Conference as a political battleground where we strive for the victory of our own opinion and demean the character or position of a sister or brother. A win/lose mentality does not fit historic or contemporary understandings of our affirmation. While we probably cannot go back to decisions by unanimous consent, we should retain some of its charitable spirit in our own manner of speaking and listening to one another.
- We suggest a review of our rules for conducting business. Perhaps we should consider a return to the Annual Conference procedure in effect from the 1880s until 1960 that required a 2/3 majority to pass answers and reports responding to queries. Such a procedure would build a greater trust that the actions represent the mind of the community of faith, and a greater likelihood that they would be taken seriously.
- It is possible that we are trying to speak exhaustively on too many issues. The combination of faith and practice should caution us not to speak about issues for which we have little priority in either time or money. Our witness is sadly tarnished when we make pronouncements without strong commitment and genuine follow through.
- All Annual Conference concerns should be examined by careful New Testament study before reaching query status, and responses to the queries should be grounded in the New Testament. Some concerns require lengthy and careful background study; others, however, can be answered more simply and directly than we have recently practiced.
A Concluding Observation
Our committee resonated with the feelings of a brother who said, I resist applications or interpretations of scripture which do not take into account the vast cultural and chronological differences which lie between myself and the writers of the scripture. But I resist with nearly equal fierceness those modernist interpretations and applications which seem to arbitrarily twist plain meaning until they no longer prick the conscience nor demand humble obedience. Claiming scripture as a norm for faith and practice must mean to me that occasionally I will come up against ideas or imperatives with which I do not agree. If I did not, I would begin to suspect that God is merely a projection of myself. These words reflect the kind of internal dialogue and tension that exist within the affirmation, the New Testament is our rule of faith and practice. We believe that this kind of struggle is consistent with the very nature of the continuing authority and power that Christ has in our life and in the way we are encouraged to faithfully live it.
The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice Study Committee:
Earle W. Fike, Jr.
Action of the 1997 Annual Conference: The delegate body received a verbal report that the Standing Committee adopted a statement on the New Testament as our Rule of Faith and Practice, and referred it to the 1998 Annual Conference. No action was taken.
David Wine, Moderator
Anne Myers, Secretary
Action of the 1998 Annual Conference: Jerry Ruff, Standing Committee member, presented the background of the query and report. With committee members present, he moved the adoption of the report. The delegate body adopted the report with two amendments which have been incorporated into the text.