Wednesday, February 15, 2012

on biblical literacy and leadership

Last night was week #2 of the discipleship class I'm leading at a local church.  I was relieved that it actually happened since, last week--only one week into the course--it was canceled for a "church meeting".  The cancellation, of course, led me to wonder how seriously the course was being taken, in spite of the fact that the opening of the course was not our own initiative but the pastor's.  It is not unusual for things to start out with a bang, only to fizzle out when the challenges of living life "on the edge" get in the way.  Or else that which is somewhat outside conventional "church culture" in this setting gets squeezed out by more conventional forms--evening prayer services, revivals, "meetings".  Another pastor from one of our partner churches elsewhere in South Africa recently articulated this phenomenon to me.  Speaking of his town, he said,

"churches in the Pentecostal stream from which I come don't do Bible study anymore.  We used to do it, but now churches just hold services during the week."

The comment came in the flow of the pastor's own case for the value of biblical education, especially for leaders in the church.  For those of us who come from rather "flat" leadership structures in the church (as opposed to hierarchical) and believe it should be that way, we may want to protest at the line, "especially for leaders in the church".  Why, we might ask, should "leaders" be valued more than laity if the type of community to which Jesus and the apostles pointed was that in which no one on earth should be called "father", since "you have one father, your father in heaven"?  Shouldn't we just expect, independent of human experts, to be taught by our heavenly Teacher as we gather together in the community of faith? (see Mt 23:8-10).

Ironically, such questions merely mirror that which they often oppose, since the ultra-hierarchical forms of church in the Pentecostal-Charismatic mold also--like their "flat" "free church/believers' church", "Anabaptist" brothers and sisters--often exhibit a kind of confidence in the "spirit" to guide apart from the illumination of the "word".  Regardless of whether or not modern Anabaptists from the global north would use the language of the spirit to speak of their church structures (we are more likely to use the language of "democracy" and "equality"), the ultimate effect is the same as the Charismatics: the erosion of literacy/fluency in the Bible.  

On the South African Charismatic side (the AICs also are not immune to this) this can take the form of leaders who insist that they need not study or seek higher biblical training because their Spirit-conferred authority is sufficient for them.  I once attended a funeral for a Zionist church member in which my presence as representative of a Bible School spurred this very debate over lunch among the leaders assembled there.  One old man was particularly adamant that it was completely unnecessary for him to attend school because he had the spirit.  The pastor quoted earlier likewise lends credence to this phenomenon when he makes the following point about his Pentecostal context.

"In the secular world, people are trained thoroughly for their professions.  But it is not that way with leaders in the church."

It is against such a backdrop, therefore, that the call for biblical education, "especially for leaders in the church", is apropos.  Facility in that source which holds such wisdom for our practice as a people faithful to God, serving the cause of justice and peace in our world, must begin somewhere.  Why not begin, therefore, with men and women specifically called, trained, and equipped to lead the church in unlocking the wonders of the word?  There is still a need for such leaders in the church on either hemisphere.


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