by Larry Caldwell, Chief Academic Officer and Professor of Intercultural Studies and Bible Interpretation
Last week, I pointed out how directional set communities would embrace Spirit-led and communal Bible interpretation practices. Acts 17:11 provides a helpful picture of what this might look like when it describes the practice of the Bereans. It reads, “Now these Jews . . . received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so.”
I closed by bringing attention to the fact that the Bereans (as well as some of the stories of Peter and Paul) are also helpful examples of how a directional set approach to community allows cultural diversity to be present within the Body of Christ, even as that Body strives to interpret Scripture.
The example of the Bereans in Acts 17 comes after both Peter’s experience with Cornelius in Acts 10 and Paul’s experience with the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15. In each of those passages, we see a reference to the cultural realities of Jews and Gentiles. In Acts 10, we see the Jews were “astonished” that the Spirit could come upon “even the Gentiles.” As we move through Acts and the letters of Paul, the cultural points of circumcision and food laws (i.e., what and with whom one could eat) tend to take center stage in the controversy around cultural diversity in the early Church. The church was in the midst of discerning if the Gentiles could be part of the family of Abraham and yet remain rooted in their Gentile culture and customs (e.g., not be circumcised, eat food sacrificed to idols, and engage in other Gentile customs). The Bereans were Jews “who examined the Scriptures daily.” We know there were Gentiles who did the same. Perhaps more telling is the fact that we know there were Jews and Gentiles who studied the Scriptures together as they sought to be led by the Spirit.
Given this historical distance between the early Church and today, it is easy for us to minimize the importance of what was happening. The earliest followers of Jesus embrace the idea that a person could be a member of the family of Abraham without adhering to Jewish cultural norms. Gentiles could follow Jesus, interpret Scripture in community, and follow the guidance of the Spirit while remaining culturally Gentiles.
In recent years, this controversy resurfaced in conversations taking place regarding missions work around the world. This time, however, it was not about whether or not someone needed to be culturally Jewish in order to follow Jesus but rather if someone had to abandon their culture in order to follow Jesus in ways that align with the (mostly western) dominant cultural practices of Christianity. For example, could a person rooted in a Muslim culture who had turned to follow Jesus continue to be culturally Muslim? The person was “inside” the Muslim culture but had submitted himself to the Lordship of Christ. Did that person need to cease engaging in cultural customs in order to “truly” follow Christ? What about Hindu culture? What about Democrats? Republicans? Green Party members? Tribal communities and cultures?
The debate by missiologists over this “insider” concept was hot and heavy, with questions like: “Were these insiders really saved?” (see my article on this topic here) and “Could the Holy Spirit really work in individuals who remained in original cultural contexts?” In this debate, there were many references to Paul Hiebert’s understanding of set theory (including my own article found here).
To help bring light to this issue a few hand-picked missiologists, including myself, were invited to participate in a week-long meeting at a secret location in Thailand. We were joined by a number of these “insiders” who had turned to become followers of Jesus yet remained in their cultures. That week we were divided up—missiologists and insiders—placed around tables, and told to study the Gospel of Mark, with no other resources other than the Markan text in English. So, for an entire week, I and my cultural insider brothers and sisters in Jesus (who also knew English) attempted to interpret the book of Mark together.
I was skeptical at first. But I soon discovered two things. First, my insider brothers and sisters had the same Holy Spirit I had. It was reminiscent of Acts 10 when the Jews were astonished that Gentiles could receive the Spirit. And second, by interpreting the Bible in community together we could arrive at some real truths for our lives and our individual fellowships of believers—without the assistance of any outside “tools.” We had the Bible. And, like the followers in Acts 15, we had the Spirit and each other. We were all following the Spirit and what brought us together was our shared direction, not our shared cultural norms, expectations, or boundaries. We were a directional set community practicing Bible interpretation!
Through this experience, I gained a new appreciation for the depth of faith found in my insider brothers and sisters as well as for the power of the Holy Spirit in the Bible interpretation process, a process made even stronger through a community approach to the text. It was a wonderful, and embodied, experience that brought stories like Acts 10, 15, and 17 to life. We tend to see the work of Bible interpretation through our cultural lenses, just like the earliest followers of Jesus. By God’s grace, those early believers, who submitted themselves to the lordship of Christ, have provided a wonderful example of how the Body of Christ extends beyond cultural boundaries.
And so may it be for all of us as we interpret the Bible with a directional set mindset. Together in community—local and global, majority world and minority world, insiders and outsiders, Baptists and Lutherans—we continually seek the Holy Spirit’s help to keep us walking in the direction of Jesus as we interpret God’s Word.