A few weeks ago, I questioned the idea that scripture is safely interpreted “in the community of faith.” This popular position had been verbalized, among other places, in the United Methodist Church’s official statement on the inspiration of scripture.
While I didn’t intend to suggest that a sincere heart interpreting alone will always be “righter” than a sincere group of Christians, I did intend to suggest that the mere existence of a “community of faith” in no way guarantees correct interpretations. This principle extends far and wide—well past the borders of my own fellowship, but certainly including it, so I’ll say it again: a denomination or congregation (or “fellowship of churches”) is fairly likely to be off-base on this or that. The community of faith is a spiritual necessity, but neither its presence nor its proximity ensures right doctrine.
A relatively minor example of what I consider an errant “community of faith” decision or teaching is what I’ve come, not so affectionately, to recall as “the sign debacle.” Several years ago, when I was a good deal more whippersnapperish, my church in DE was about to build a new sign for passers-by to see. After months of hint-dropping and conversations with the elders and others, I believed I had a really fine consensus for constructing and installing some kind of changeable sign.
The sign I had in roughly mind would have been classy — not neon or cheap-looking. It would have provided opportunities for great advertising, and even some teaching, as it were: a sign that said “God’s Church” on Monday and “The Cedars Family of Jesus meets here” on Friday might have made some Rt. 41 drivers think. Again, I believe all the primary leaders — shepherds/elders of the church — were in agreement with my idea, in principle and in most specifics.
But then a few others in the congregation got wind of the idea. And the narrow sectarians (whoa! I’m only catching my egregious labeling on final proofing, but I’ll leave it in as exhibit A) took over. The church was then effectively being led by a few naysayers and not by the leaders. This sign could have even had our fellowship’s well-known title still on it somewhere, for all I cared. As long as the opportunity existed to show that a scriptures-based Christian church was not to be pigeonholed by one exclusive name, we were doing something productive in the arena of nondenominational discipleship and witness to the surrounding community. I was motivated by principles of non-sectarian, unifying Christianity, and I still believe I was on the right path.
The new sign ended up looking nice. “Real nice, Clark,” in the words of Eddie from the “Christmas Vacation” movie. But it said essentially the same thing as the previous sign had said for 25 years, and we went nowhere as a church. This kind of thing, I suspect, happens a lot in churches. And it’s just one reason that congregational consensus, a/k/a “interpretation by the community of faith,” is not always to be trusted.
For a bit more on sign-ifying and the church, see here.