Earlier this year the Barna group released results from a series of surveys based on the American opinion of the Bible, and their research revealed some interesting trends. For example, 80% of those surveyed stated that they considered the Bible to be a “sacred text,” which was more than three times the amount of the Koran, the Book of Mormon, and the Torah combined. However, only 45% of people said that they strongly agreed that the Bible contained everything a person needs to live a meaningful life. These studies also revealed that 71% of people confessed that the Bible was inspired the God in some way, but only 33% believe it is entirely accurate. Finally, 51% of people responded that they engage the Bible at least two times a year outside of an organized church service- and 55% percent of responders say the Bible brings them closer to God.
It is no secret that the evolving culture around us has a complicated relationship with the Bible. Whereas the Bible may not have the central role in society it once had, to say that the majority of people in America have abandoned Scripture is not accurate, and in many ways is a hyperbolic response to a complicated issue. In fact, many people would identify that they have a high respect for the Bible, but they do not relate to the Scriptures in traditional ways. Therefore, through the next series of essays, I will present a four-fold way that Brethren can faithfully approach the Scriptures in a series I have titled “Witnessing the Word.” These essays will present engagement with the Bible as rule, confession, repentance, and proclamation. Each of these movements hopes to introduce a way that we can both personally and cooperatively engage the Word of God, and invite others around us to approach the Bible as well.
The Bible As Rule
The Church of the Brethren has always held a high view of the Bible- especially the New Testament. In 1998 Annual Conference adopted a statement entitled “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice.” This paper has become a cornerstone of how our denomination functions together. The heart of this statement affirms that the Bible was central to the Brethren movement from the beginning. The 1998 delegate body affirmed that Alexander Mack himself taught that one should “resolve to sacrifice your life, property, family, yes, all that you have in the whole world rather than waiver from [the Bible’s] teaching].” The Bible as rule is not new to who we are but deeply seeded in our Brethren DNA.
The conflict arises not from the Bible as rule, but the purpose of that rule. For many people, the rule of the Bible is about legislation, judication, and punishment. For these people, the Bible is a standard; we should place our lives against that measure to assess reward, discipline, and eternal destination. Much of this way of thinking find roots in Augustine and his dogmatic method of relating to Scripture. The tension here can be that a dogmatic method of Scripture interpretation can easily call us away from specific behaviors, rather than inviting us into a more holistic way of living.
For others, most Brethren included, Scripture is not about judication, but relationship. Brethren have traditionally approached Scripture with a two-fold hermeneutic- Christocentric and Communal. In other words, the Brethren read the Bible with the understanding that all Scripture is centered around Jesus, and all Scripture is best understood and applied in the community setting. Emphasising the communal hermeneutic means shifting from I and me language when interpreting the Scriptures to us and we language, because the rule of Scripture is not just about the individual, but that certain individuals place in the community of faith, and the world as a whole. Furthermore, the Brethren hermeneutic offers a conviction that Biblical literacy is not about merely factual memorization, but in the lifestyle of a person. Perhaps this conviction is best framed by Dale Brown, who said that the Brethren hermeneutic “becomes a genuine living authority when stories and messages of texts make a difference in the lives of believers, even vessels of clay.” This is the connection between the New Testament as our rule and our practice.
By applying this hermeneutic to the rule of Scripture, we are led to focus on the Scriptures as a way of encouraging us to flourish in the Kingdom of God, not merely offering a list of offenses punishable in the Kingdom. In many ways, this kind of interpretation seems to line up alongside the original intent of Old Testament Law. Many people would emphasize passages like Exodus 19:5-6 which says “Now, therefore if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites” (NRSV) to summarize the intent of the Law. However, this does not seem to be the end of the story. Yes, God used the Law (rule) to create a holy people, but passages like Galatians 3:10 emphasize that keeping the Law is a curse, and impossible to do with human strength. Paul then teaches in Galatians 3 that the Law was not merely given to push us to try harder but to point us to our great need for a savior- Jesus Christ.
Scripture, then, is not merely about innocence and guilt, but relationship. The “rules” of Scripture function as parameters for engaging the most healthy relationship with both God and neighbor. When juxtaposed against worldly rule we see that the laws of the government are not merely to legislate who is guilty or innocent, or to prevent anarchy, but to provide parameters for a flourishing society. In the same way, the rule of Scripture is not just about heaven and hell, but about empowering the Kingdom of God to come in our lives in the healthiest way possible.
This blog post is part one of a four-part series adapted from transcripts preached during a revival at Forest Chapel Church of the Brethren.
Jon Prater is the pastor of Mt. Zion Church of the Brethren in Linville, Virginia where he has served since 2020. He is a current MDiv student at Bethany Theological Seminary and has an undergraduate degree in Biblical Theology from Liberty University. A former church planter, Jon is a public speaker and workshop leader on subjects including church planting and church vitality. He is husband to Jessica and father to twin sons Aiden and Elijah.
 “The Bible in America.”
 “The New Testament as Our Rule of Faith and Practice.”
 McKnight, Postmodern Use of the Bible. 29.
 Brown, Another Way of Believing. 101.
 Ibid. 103.
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