Gingerich Longenecker encourages renewed commitment to study of Scripture
SCHILLER PARK, Ill. (Mennonite Church USA)—Jewel Gingerich Longenecker, associate dean for leadership education at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) in Elkhart, Ind., shared from her doctoral dissertation with Constituency Leaders Council members at their Oct. 6–8 meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., on the topic of how we can rethink our relationships to each other and the Bible.
She noted that while the Bible was central to the faith of 16th-century Anabaptists, today Mennonites seem to be uncertain about how to read and understand Scripture. A 2006 survey of Mennonite Church USA members showed that fewer than 17 percent of Mennonites participate in a weekly small group meeting for the purpose of discussion, Bible study or prayer. Gingerich Longenecker said that because Scriptures have often been abused and used as a weapon in culture wars, there is rising doubt that they can be a guide on questions of sexuality.
However, she noted that dialogue with Scripture “must be at the center of the life of the Christian community.” She wondered aloud what it would be like if membership in Mennonite Church USA was based on congregations’ commitment to engage in weekly Bible study.
“The Bible provides stories that have given identity to Christian community; it is the one language shared by Christians across different backgrounds,” she said. “When we can no longer speak to each other from the Bible, we lose our common identity, our shared theological core. We cannot speak across our divides because we are no longer speaking a common language.”
“Might it be that the Bible is the one thing that can save us? Might it be the language that we could learn to speak together again?” she asked the gathered group.
Gingerich Longenecker noted that access has increased to various tools for reading and understanding Scripture, and that pastors are key in guiding and motivating more and better Bible study. She shared results of interviews she conducted for her doctoral studies of six Mennonite pastors from diverse backgrounds who lead regular adult Bible studies in their congregations, drawing on tools of biblical scholarship gained in seminary.
The pastors had in common an intense passion for biblical formation for the sake of transformation; a common conviction that teaching is central to their ministry; many formative experiences; a number of personal characteristics; and an overall educational approach. For all of them, the Bible was not a rule book but an account of God’s story that represents an authority for their lives that shapes them.
Gingerich Longenecker invited her listeners to engage Scripture in diverse communities, seeking to articulate not only their own, but each others’ understandings of Scripture.
“The Scriptures call for the formation and re-formation of faithful communities before God,” she said. “They were hugely important for our forebearers’ time and place and strengthened them for faithful discipleship. This is our time. We cannot rely on their study or spiritual practices and experiences; we cannot take shortcuts and continue to call ourselves a biblical people. We have to experience Scripture for ourselves.”
She acknowledged that the task of engaging Scripture would not be easy. It is difficult work, requiring time, preparation and commitment to transformation.
“Let’s not let the difficulty of the task cause us to lower the bar,” she concluded. “Instead, let’s take up the challenge and ask, ‘Who can lead us in this work? Who in each congregation is gifted to teach?’”
—Annette Brill Bergstresser for Mennonite Church USA
Jewel Gingerich Longenecker of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind., shares with the Constituency Leaders Council at their Oct. 6–8 meeting in Schiller Park, Ill., on learning to read the Bible well together. (Photo by Annette Brill Bergstresser)