Monday, April 30, 2007

Church and Restoration

Yesterday, my pastor, Ken Wytsma, directed us to the descriptions (in Acts 2, Galatians, and other places) of the early churches. Unlike many modern Christians, his point was not that these early churches are a perfect model for us to follow. Indeed, his minor thesis was that even the very first followers of Christ--the very first examples of local bodies of Christ--were imperfect (their specific flaws included such things as incest and legalism). Thus it is invalid to say that because the modern local church is flawed, we have no reason to associate with it. (Pastor Ken's major thesis was that the local church is God's Plan A for followers of Christ and that God has no Plan B.)

But since many well-meaning Christians do tend to cite the early churches as an ideal toward which we ought to strive, I thought I'd interact with this idea a bit more. And to do that, I want to start with an analogy.

I once took an entire course (at the graduate level) in Restoration Ecology. We studied all sorts of ecosystems--streams, marshes, sand dunes, forests, islands, and such--and how to restore them to a particular (ideal) health. Now, my intent here is not to disparage such efforts or the people involved in them, and so I need to point out that much good work is needed--and is being done--in this broad area. But the problem is that most of the systems at issue are dynamic systems, ones that, in the natural course of events would not remain static but would change (in some cases never to return to the previous state again). In the normal course of things, a pond becomes a bog or marsh, which in turn fills in to become a meadow, which eventually becomes a forest. Systems may linger longer in a certain state, but change is inevitable--naturally. Thus, whenever we select a particular stage (of a stream or forest system, e.g.,) and try to restore the system to that stage, we are choosing a mere snapshot of what is naturally a motion picture. Maintaining any system at a particular stage is thus working against nature, and will require constant expense (of time, money, and energy). In my opinion, the best such efforts are those that focus on correcting easily-identified prior human mistakes (eradicating exotic predators like snakes and mongooses from island systems where they were wrongly introduced, fencing cattle out of riparian areas, eliminating the use of DDT are some positive examples).

In like manner, the local church--and even the more comprehensive (but elusive) church universal--is a dynamic system. There are certainly principles to be learned from reading about the New Testament churches, and some of those principles have to do (as Ken pointed out) with how to deal with the messiness within those local churches. But the fact is that no church throughout history has been called to be exactly what our local church in Bend, Oregon in this generation is called by God to be. We will face some of the same issues that others have faced, and we will face new problems. We will be given opportunities that others have been given, but we will also have different and novel opportunities presented us.

If I'm right, it would not only be wrong to try to replicate the church of Acts 2; it would likewise be wrong to try to replicate any particular church with which we are familiar from our own past. We should follow Scripture and the leading of the Holy Spirit, while remaining somewhat skeptical of things done only for tradition's sake.

We are responsible before God for how well we align ourselves with what He is doing in this unique generation--and that both locally, in Central Oregon, and around the world ("Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth"). May we not miss our calling to be involved in God's dynamic plan by focusing too intently on a particular past snapshot of it.

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