Where does AMBS stand?

Nov 16, 2017 by

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

I am often asked, “Where does AMBS stand [on this or that issue]?” My response, with some elaboration, is, “We stand on the Word of God.”

The question is reaching for a declaration about conviction. What ethical ground have we staked out on a matter in dispute? How have we differentiated from those we disagree with? When key theological convictions are threatened, can we be trusted to hold our ground? Are we on the right side of where the battle lines have been drawn up?

In this 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, my response — we stand on the Word of God — hearkens back to Martin Luther, who is reported to have declared, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God … . Here I stand. I can do no other.” Case closed!

Except it isn’t. In a face off with a corrupt pope, appealing to individual conscience is a powerful corrective — particularly a conscience “captive to the Word of God.” But, as we all know, individual conscience can also be corrupted by fear, pride, greed, self-righteousness and, in Luther’s case, can be used to persecute and kill Anabaptists. Both centralized power by papal authority and an individualistic take on the Word of God can be horribly abused. History is rife with examples.

I grew up among a people who knew how to take a stand on Scripture and who shared deep convictions about standing strong in the face of persecution, loving enemies, witnessing boldly about Jesus’ radical love, and choosing to die rather than deny our faith — exemplary qualities so needed in this day of corrupt politicians, hate-filled racism, prejudice and fear.

Yet that revolutionary faith got coded into our DNA in sometimes strangely aberrant forms. Taking a stand, at least for the Swiss/Germans among us, came to mean enforcing strict rules to keep ourselves pure, excluding the wrong kind of people from communion, writing guidelines to control who’s in and who’s out, and using proof texts to make sure we’re all crystal clear on what the Bible says, usually in King James English. Standing strong often meant splitting off from others less right or faithful than we were.

But what if that deeply ingrained DNA to stand strong was truly held captive by the Word of God? What if rather than using a litmus test to judge whether other people are Bible-believing Christians, we gave up our idolatrous certainties about what the Bible says and experienced humility and a little trembling before the Lord, who asks: “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces? See, I am against the prophets … who steal my words from one another. See, I am against the prophets … who use their own tongues and say, ‘Says the Lord.’ See, I am against those … who lead my people astray by their lies and their recklessness, when I did not send them or appoint them … ” (Jer. 23:29-32).

The sad reality is that most of us don’t know how to read the Scriptures well or with true understanding of what they reveal of the Word of God. We also tend to cluster in groups of people who read them more or less like we do — people who look a lot like us and share prejudices that have stiffened into convictions. In tragic ways, the Bible — which is often referred to as God’s written Word — has become a battle ground on which we disable and maim each other.

When people ask me, where does AMBS stand on human sexuality, the authority of Scripture, women in leadership, peace and justice, immigration, climate change, white supremacy, the president — you name it — my response is: Come, learn to read the Scriptures with us — prayerfully and skillfully, with humility and awe. Learn to read the Scriptures well — listening to their many voices from varied contexts, times, languages, genres and perspectives. Learn to listen to the Spirit in a community of persons from diverse contexts who, despite our differences and because of our differences, want to root ourselves in the Word of God and grow in Christ.

When I answer as I do — We stand on the Word of God — am I simply avoiding the real intent of the questions: Are you progressive or conservative on same-sex relationships? Do you believe in biblical authority? Can one be rich and a follower of Jesus? Does the Bible’s teaching on divorce matter anymore? Is killing a person ever justified?

Rather than avoiding the question, I am reframing it. Any answer to the question about where we stand ethically must be grounded theologically in the Word of God, which we never capture or pin down for all times, places, circumstances — the Word of God, which always transcends any particular time or culturally bound interpretation. We have often failed as Mennonites and Christians to truly be held captive by the Word of God. We can do better. And it won’t be by taking sides or taking a stand on idolatrous, truncated certainties about what the Bible says.

At AMBS, students and faculty are across the theological spectrum on many issues, including sexuality. We invite everyone, whether so-called conservative or liberal, to submit pre-formed convictions to be tested by persons with different convictions and by the deep wisdom from our faith traditions and the best scientific and experiential data available — all of which we examine under the light of the Scriptures. Together, as a learning community, using the best interpretive tools available, we call on the Holy Spirit to bring us from the different places we stand, closer to each other and to Jesus Christ, who as the Word of God, showed us what it means to be fully human.

I offer a story to illustrate how this works at AMBS, from a Greek Readings: Synoptic Gospels course, as told by Mary Schertz, retired professor of New Testament: “Synoptics this morning was very fruitful. We were discussing the Transfiguration. We had just about every opinion laid on the table at one point or another. There was good will; everyone was taken seriously by everyone. And we had a very good time and came to some interesting and important conclusions, namely that Scripture is the stabilizing bar as we walk the tightrope of life. We were talking about falling back on faith as a safety net and then worked our way around to the metaphor that seemed more satisfying — Scripture as the balancing bar. It moves. It has flexibility. It has an allowable range that takes into account variables in body weight, skill, air flow, circumstances, etc., but there are also givens and fundamentals that simply have to be taken seriously in order not to fall.”

Taking a stand on the Word of God means that in humility, we offer an invitation:

  • Come, grow in awe and a little trembling before the Lord, who asks: “Is not my word like fire … and like a hammer that breaks a rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29-32)
  • Come, grow into leaders who kneel before God, acknowledging our prejudice and blindness even as we do our best to name convictions on sexual practice, biblical authority, peacemaking, jubilee justice … .
  • Come, grow into leaders who recognize that one’s own reading of Scripture is fallible and requires a rich diversity of voices to more fully illuminate the Word of God.
  • Come, learn what it means to truly be captive to the Word of God revealed in the Scriptures, in nature, in worship, in the body of Christ and above all, in Jesus Christ.
  • Come, grow into leaders with conviction who will stand up for Jesus and Jesus’ jubilee gospel (Luke 4:18-19) in personal, congregational and public spaces.

As an Anabaptist learning community, we are committed to a (trans)formational reading and interpretation of the Scriptures with the guidance of the Holy Spirit in community. We stand on the foundation that is Jesus Christ, about whom it was said: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14, NRSV).

Sara Wenger Shenk is president of Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, Ind. This post first appeared on her blog, Practicing Reconciliation.


Comments Policy

Mennonite World Review invites readers’ comments on articles. To promote constructive dialogue, editors select the comments that appear, just as we do with letters to the editor in print. These decisions are final. Writers must sign their first and last names; anonymous comments are not accepted. Comments do not appear until approved and are posted during business hours. Comments may be reproduced in print, and may be edited if selected for print.

  • Evan Knappenberger

    I agree with SWS here. Reading the bible is a relating to truth, and rightly relating to God has always been a practice in ideology critique. I am glad AMBS seems to have formulated this.

    I only wish we were as willing to disrobe our own idols as we are everybody else’s; instead of rehashing homosexuality, for example, we should be doing a thorough reassessment of biblical critique of the ideology of sex and gender.

    We need to be equally willing to call ourselves and our communities out for engaging mimetic vortices and acting without “wisdom righteousness and knowledge” (e.g. Deut. 16) when we pile on to scapegoat people we dont like for problems they did not create.

    So yes, this sounds good to postmodern ears and I look forward to seeing it practiced in the church.

    Evan Knappenberger

  • Richard Worden Wilson

    An excess of equivocation and ambivalence sounds a lot more like an advertisement than it does a commitment.

    • Brian Arbuckle

      These are the kinds of things fundraisers have to say.

  • Scott Smith

    I would suggest that the words “Anabaptist” and “Mennonite” in AMBS are too exclusive for the philosophy expressed here and that a name change should be considered to reflect greater diversity. Scott Smith

  • Walter Bergen

    J. Gresham Machen, the single most influential theological voice for H.S. Bender once observed that liberals use the same vocabulary as Christians, they simply use a different dictionary: hence the faith they espouse is radically different ….
    what SWS is advocating for is a plurality that embraces theological diversity beyond what the apostolic witness can countenance. It is not enough for AMBS to stand on the Word of God. Discerned aright, it also calls for an obedience to is strictures and grace.
    Is their theological diversity in the interpretation of the NT. Yes. Does it extend to embracing false teaching. No. AMBS needs to discern that frontier, and embark on a rigorous obedience to the apostolic understandings our Anabaptist forebearers sought to embrace in the face of great opposition.
    Just as Menno Simons had a ‘second conversion’, a conversion to obedience, AMBS needs to explore the breadth and depth of obeying the gospel, not just learning it.