By Dick Barrett
Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. — Hebrews 13:8 (ESV)
Each year I try to read through the entire Bible, both the New Testament and the Old Testament, following different Bible reading plans. I must confess that I have not always been successful. I also often find myself struggling with parts of the Old Testament, trying to reconcile the God we find there with the God we find in the New Testament. But the Bible tells us that God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. It seems that we often dismiss the attributes and characteristics of God that we don’t like and affirm the attributes and characteristics of God we like, thus creating a God of our own image, who becomes no God at all.
Recently I have been reading through the book of the prophet Jeremiah, wondering what God might be saying to our nation and our church today. If God would speak so severely to the people of Judah and Jerusalem, the people whom he uniquely chose to be his own, how would he speak to us today? I have been especially challenged by how he might speak to us, his prophets of today, who are called to speak his word to the people in our churches.
God speaks words to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, saying things like, “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the LORD. They say continually to those who despise the word of the LORD, ‘It shall be well with you,’ and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you’” (Jeremiah 23:16-17), and “They have healed the wound of my people lightly; saying ‘Peace, peace,’ when there is no peace” (Jeremiah 8:11). We seem to live in a time and culture in which we are very welcoming of God’s words of encouragement and affirmation, but have very little room, or no room at all, for his words of challenge and confrontation which are supposed to lead to correction and repentance.
What role does the word of God play, both in our churches and in our personal lives, today? I am not sure that words that we have used in the past such as “infallible,” and “inerrant” are all that helpful to us today. But that should not change the authority which we give God’s written word. Our current Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective (1995) does a great job of capturing the meaning of the authority of Scripture in Article 4: “We acknowledge the Scripture as the authoritative source and standard for preaching and teaching, about faith and life, for distinguishing truth from error, for discerning between good and evil, and for guiding prayer and worship. Other claims on our understanding of Christian faith and life, such as tradition, culture, experience, reason and political powers, need to be tested and corrected by the light of the Holy Scripture.”
As someone who was attracted to the Mennonite Church because of its seemingly strong emphasis on seeking to be a biblical people (Article 4, Commentary 4), over the past decade or so my view of that emphasis has been challenged by what I have witnessed in our larger denomination, the colleges, universities and seminaries that are affiliated with Mennonite Church USA, and some of our churches. It is one thing to say that we are a biblical people and that we acknowledge the Scripture as authoritative; it is another to live it out in our lives.
I must say that my experience at this year’s Mennonite Church USA Convention in Kansas City was refreshing, especially with the emphasis on the word of God in almost all of the worship services and the Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Ephesians during the delegate sessions. That had not been my experience at the previous several conventions. As I have traveled around Ohio Conference visiting churches on Sunday mornings, I am also encouraged by our pastors who are trying to be faithful to the word of God in their preaching and teaching.
As Mennonites and Anabaptists we have traditionally tested our understandings and interpretations of Scripture in the community of faith, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and with the belief that God’s fullest revelation of who he is and his will for his people is found in the life, teachings, death and resurrection of his Son, Jesus Christ, who is the same, yesterday, today and tomorrow. My prayer is that our pastors and church leaders will continue to try and be faithful to the preaching and teaching of the word of God and that the people in our churches will continue to hold us accountable to doing so. May it be so for God’s glory and honor!