interpreting the bible in community

bible, community, small group, study

Written by Mark Lafler

B.A., Global University; M.C.S., Regent College I am currently serving as a youth minister at our church in Sarasota, FL. I am married to Tera (15 Years +) and we have 3 beautiful daughters.

May 20, 2011

bible, community, small group, study

[serialposts]Last week I shared 3 misunderstandings concerning Bible interpretation and suggested that the Bible should be interpreted in community.  Allow me to give some precedent on interpreting the Bible in community.

First, the birth of the church is perhaps the most significant precedent for community interpretation of the Bible.

Obviously, the early church did not have the New Testament as we do.  They met together in small community house groups and did not emphasize private reading of the Bible because they were an oral society.  The population was largely illiterate and the cost of producing and buying a scroll or a codex was very expensive.

Stanley Grenz and John Franke note:

Apart from the authority of the Christian community, there would be no canon of authorized texts.  In short, apart from the Christian community the Christian Bible would not exist (Beyond Foundationalism, 115).

The Bible is a work of community that should be read within the understanding of community.

Similarly, the Bible was written to communities.  Almost all of Paul’s epistles were written to communities, not individual leaders.  Church fathers, like Polycarp in the 2nd century, also addressed letters to communities.

Secondly, the Reformation sheds light on the importance of community interpretation.

The Reformers gave a wonderful gift to humanity – translations for common people to interpret.  But did they intend scripture to be interpreted individualistically?  John Calvin apparently did not think so.

Donald Lake quotes John Calvin saying:

There are special men, pastors, and teachers, who are given the task of interpreting for others.  We must rememember that the Scripture is not only given us, but interpreters and teachers are also added, to be helps to us (Interpreting the Word of God, 195).

The Reformers also placed emphasis on the Holy Spirit as they believed that the Spirit actively participates with interpretation of scripture.

Individual reading of Scripture evolved during this time as the invention of Johann Gutenberg’s printing press (1439) helped ignite the Reformation and the growth of individualism.

Finally, our contemporary culture of post-modernism should be weighed.

In our cynical and individualistic period we must be aware of how our own culture influences our interpretation.  Contemporary society has become increasingly individualistic and the church has followed the trend.

Many of us barely know who we live by, who we work with, or who we go to church with.

Some suggest the term individualism has only been in use starting some time in the 19th century.  If this is the case, we have digressed quickly.

Individualism also increases subjectivism within interpetation suggests Grenz and Franke.  They note:

The problem of subjectivism arises only when we mistakenly place the individual ahead of the community (Beyond Foundationalism, 68).

We must guard against putting ourselves ahead of the community of Christ.

As is noted above, there is a clear precedent for interpreting the Bible within community.

Next week, I will share what a community interpretation of the Bible might look like.


  1. Bill

    If scripture is a community activity, then does that begin to imply that, while there is a personal element, salvation (justification, sanctification, glorification) is also a community event?  If that follows then getting someone to recite a particular prayer does not seem to be an action that incorporates an individual into a community – changing from a “me” to a “we”. 

    Has the church been remiss in not building community relationships, demonstrating those, clarifying those and letting potential new believers understand the importance of what they are doing – not getting personal salvation but joining the body of Christ?

    Maybe another both/and but might be worth reflecting on

    • Mark Lafler

      Good comments!  Salvation is a community “event” as well as a personal “event.”  I appreciate some church traditions that emphasize the community “event” through their practice of Baptism (that is baptism into the church – not a personal expression) and the Lord’s Supper as a community table and less a personal experience.  They are both/and.  Good addition to the post.

      I like the joining of the body of Christ as opposed to personal salvation.  It is both, but the personal part is over-emphasized to the detriment of the other.

      Thank you, Bill. 

    • Andy Carlson

      Yes, in my opinion the “church” has been remiss in not fostering a sense of community….which has led to our division….both within the  church and the secular communities at the point that individualism has brought us  isolation and reclusiveness – separation not just from other Christians but from the community of man.

  2. Andy Carlson

    I especially appreciated the enlightenment of the early community directed conversations and teaching…rather than individualistic.  Placing the date of Gutenburg’s press as a transiting point from “community learning and understanding” to the “individualistic”…and the subsequent loss of community….good stuff…..Thanks….


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interpreting the bible in community

by Mark Lafler time to read: 2 min