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Guardrails, centerlines, and travel lanes

Limits and leeway on the highway of biblical interpretation

by Rob Patterson

Believing the Bible: We value the Bible as God’s authoritative word, study it together, and build our lives on its truth.

Anyone who has driven on a U.S. highway knows that the limits of the road are determined by two features: guardrails and centerlines. Violate either feature and you’re flirting with danger. Both boundaries are restrictive, but they also permit a measure of safety and freedom within the traffic lanes.

This highway imagery can be helpful in explaining our Brethren in Christ (BIC) approach to the Bible. In traversing Scripture’s highway, our centerline is Christ. As BIC, we interpret the whole text—both the Old and New Testaments—through the life and teachings of Jesus. By focusing on Him, we hope to avoid drifting into potentially dangerous lanes of interpretation or application.

The guardrails are formed by our process of interpreting and applying the Bible in community. Together, we seek to discern what the Holy Spirit is saying as to how we should live out God’s word day to day. By approaching Scripture as a community, not just as individuals, we avoid the reckless driving that could cause us to depart the road of truth.

Though the words and life of Christ comprise the centerline of the BIC path, and though community discernment determines the guardrails, questions remain. For instance, how wide is the road we’re traversing and how much freedom does the driver have in his or her traffic lane? In other words, how far can someone deviate in their application of God’s word and still be BIC?

Not too long ago, we BIC applied Scripture in very black-and-white ways. For instance, we read Romans 12:2—“Do not conform to the pattern of this world”—and interpreted it as requiring a particular kind of “plain dress.” Back then, the price for deviation in application was expulsion from the body.

Today, we have exchanged many of these prescriptive practices for guiding principles. We seek to emulate Jesus and avoid conformity to the surrounding culture in word, deed, and attitude, without laying down a lot of rules and regulations. Our desire is to center on Jesus and remain bounded by the wisdom of the community. But within our particular contexts, we retain some freedom to determine what cultural conformity looks like—and to figure out the best way to avoid it as the Holy Spirit guides us in the “renewing of our minds” (Romans 12:2).

In navigating the biblical highway, there is no doubt that we value the centerline and our guardrails. Admittedly, though, our community sometimes disagrees on the proper width of our travel lanes. Some think our lanes are too narrow; others, too wide. Still, we remain confident in our principles and values as we welcome the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit to lead the way.

This article is adapted from a piece in the August 2013 edition of Brethren in Christ History and Life​, the journal of the Brethren in Christ Historical Society.

This article originally appeared in the fall 2014 issue of In Part magazine.
Rob Patterson

Rob Patterson spends a lot of time traversing the highways of western Pennsylvania, Maryland, and West Virginia as bishop of the Allegheny Regional Conference. When not on the road, he enjoys spending time with his wife, Daryl.

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