Scripture is unnecessary for any church wishing to remain stagnant or isolated from the community at large.* All that is necessary is to retain the written or unwritten creed that has been extrapolated from scripture. Such a creed is sufficient for maintaining the status-quo.
On the other hand, for churches living on the frontier of God’s mission, scripture is essential. For out on the frontier is where churches encounter new questions. For example:
- What does worship, preaching, Christian community and disciple-making look like in a culture saturated with technology yet so interpersonally distant?
- How does the church live as witness of Jesus to a growing Muslim population with all of the historical animosity between Christianity and Islam?
- What does the role of women in Christian ministry and leadership look like in a context far removed from the patriarchal culture of scripture?
- How does the church minister to the GLBT people with the same hospitality and inclusivity Jesus had for the “sinner’s and tax-collectors” of his day while remaining faithful to the will of God?
As it should be evident, such questions do not have simple answers. While scripture does not answer any of these questions directly, it far from silent for any church with the ears to hear.
I have been reading John R. Franke’s book Manifold Witness: The Plurality of Truth. The eighth chapter, “Scripture as the Word of God” is very helpful on how scripture ought to function for churches living on the frontier.
For such churches, scripture is given “for the purpose of listening to the voice of the Spirit who speaks in and through the Scripture to the church in the present” (p 75). So through scripture, the voice of God speaks to these church as they live upon the frontier, even when they find themselves in unchartered territory. That is why the public reading of scripture, along with the preaching and teaching, was of value to the church which the young evangelist Timothy was sent too, to devote himself (cf. 1 Tim 4:13).
In this way, scripture is like a compass for a long journey forward. The goal is not the compass itself. Instead, as a compass, scripture is given for these frontier churches to remain on course as they traverse into new territory.
As these Christian communities journey upon this course, the goal is to live out of their God given identity. Thus by living as the people of God, these churches live in praise to God as they live good lives among the community at large so that others will in turn glorify God (cf. 1 Pet 2:9-12). From this understanding, Franke rightfully writes:
…the world [the] Spirit seeks to create is the eschatological world intended by God for creation that is disclosed, displayed, and anticipated in the pages of the Bible. Scripture is the vehicle of the Spirit who speaks in and through the biblical texts for the purpose of establishing a social world in the midst of present circumstances that is concretely and particularly centered on the present and future lordship of Jesus Christ. (p. 78)
In other words, scripture is not trying to lead us to restore a by gone era of Christianity. Rather, scripture is given so that churches, as followers of Jesus, can live as a portrait among the world of what the life will be when Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is fully at hand.
It is within this framework that the church can begin to ask these new questions and allow scripture to bear upon them. While answers to such questions will never betray this redemptive portrait, the answers themselves may differ from earlier communities given the different circumstances of the new territory the frontier church lives within.
* This post is a slightly modified version of an article that is being published by the same title in Connecting, 27 (October 31, 2012), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.