The church today is filled with new models and new ventures, new approaches and new theories. We know the church is broken and we are groaning for change. In our desperation, we are turning everywhere to seek the right path. Logic, pragmatism, social theory, leadership theory, business models, marketing methods. Some, in their desire to find the right way, are re-examining the scriptures. Where better to turn? T. Austin Sparks well said, “The whole New Testament (Bible, if you like) is concerned with how things ought to be.”
It is not a difficult matter to ask how things should be when we read scripture. Nor is it difficult to see how far we are from the way things should be. While it looks deceptively simple to move from one to the other, it is enormously difficult to do so, because we rely on ourselves for a work that is foremost spiritual in nature. For example, in I Chron 13 God finds fault, not in David’s desire to move the Ark from where it should not be to where it should, but in how he chose to do so.
The Ark should be in Jerusalem, but it lay in the house of Abinadab for twenty years after the ill-conceived plan to use it as a weapon against the Philistines. David consulted with the leaders and with the people and all agreed it should be brought home. This was the simple part, much like the task facing the churches today. It isn’t that we don’t know what is wrong. So what does David do next (and what will we)?
Returning the Ark
Following a holy desire, enflamed with zeal, David, the leaders of Israel, and the people don’t waste their creative energies consulting God about how to move the Ark. Instead, they design a special conveyance based on pragmatic designs–the cart, drawn by oxen, will provide an expeditious solution, elegant for its day. If anyone remembers the biblical method for moving the Ark, they must admit this is a well designed improvement over the ancient manpower method. Yes, what glory we will bring to God and to Jerusalem! I imagine it was built with joy and great hope.
Next, they choose the sons of Abinadab guide the cart. From an earthly, practical perspective, it was reasonable and gracious to give this honor to the family who had housed and preserved the Ark all these years. The whole endeavor was based on self-reliance and human reasoning. Oh, how great we imagine the things we plan to do for God, yet how small we imagine Him. He is lucky to have us on His side. We’re glad to pitch in. We all know the tragic results: Uzza is struck dead when he touches the Ark, good man that he is, trying to secure it in its unbiblical setting.
“And David was afraid of God that day, saying, How shall I bring the ark of God home to me? So David brought not the ark home to himself to the city of David, but carried it aside into the house of Obededom the Gittite. And the ark of God remained with the family of Obededom in his house three months.” I Chron 13:12-14
That we might gain this fear without such cost. Just knowing what needs to be done isn’t enough. Knowing how to apply means to accomplish the end isn’t what’s called for. Being gracious and considerate towards those involved–even those who have made sacrifices in preserving what is right–isn’t the foremost consideration. Devising thoughtful methods of our own will not work if God has already told us His plans and designs. How does the Ark finally reach Jerusalem? Did it matter to follow God’s design?
“For because ye did it not at the first, the LORD our God made a breach upon us, for that we sought him not after the due order. So the priests and the Levites sanctified themselves to bring up the ark of the LORD God of Israel.” I Chron 15:14-15 (see also Numbers 4:5-6, 15)
Returning to the Land
We could look, too, at the exodus. Go from point A to point B. You have the map in your bible. But on the ground, in the heat of the desert, they lacked faith, trusting only in their own power and knowing too well its limitations, they lost heart at the size of the task. (Don’t you feel a similar urge?) They had so long been slaves to men, yet they could not understand being the servants of God, being under His, rather than Egypt’s, protection. Their long abuse did not teach them trust; it taught them fear.
Don’t you think the church is in a similar state? Do you think hundreds of years of Satan inspired, human engineered clergy domination leaves no scars in the soul of the saints? Do you think years of lectures without results would cause us to question whether our souls have life at all? Whether God has power at all? We need, like Israel, to watch for a powerful and fearsome God to move, and learn to follow Him in the light and in the dark, learn that He provides for us. When next we come to the river, we come in God’s array and order, and we will enter in; be it trembling or dancing, we will enter in. It is not the amount of trust, but the object of our trust.
Rebuilding the Temple and the Walls
Again, we can see the apparent simplicity of moving back to God, point A to point B, in the return from Babylon. Only about 5% returned, so we have in this epic movement the faithful sifted out, those willing to endure hardship and to restore the people of God to their rightful place. Soon, they were sidetracked by the needs of home and family, they were distracted by theological perspectives of the times, until Haggai challenged them to consider their ways and re-examine the times. We need such voices today.
The old ones who knew the true measure of the fullness of God’s design were disheartened at the lesser temple they restored, but were given this hope–the temple they are building will be the one visited by Messiah. We need to know we are also building again the holy temple, the habitation of God through the Spirit, to which our Master will soon come.
Then, the work got sidetracked again, and people went back to surviving, to focusing on themselves. God stirs Nehemiah heart, and he came to rebuild the nation’s tattered defenses. The work of returning, seemingly simple, was only accomplished in parts, often sidetracked, and required renewed efforts again and again. Ultimately, they failed to take their place as the people of God, to reach the whole world with the light of God.
Restoring the Church
Let us be clear that we are singularly seeking to rebuild the church. I’m good with missional if it stays on mission. We are not restoring a nation, or a society, or God’s law in the earth, or even God’s kingdom to the earth. That day will come, but it is not now. God is, since the establishment of the church, focused on one thing: taking out a people from this world for His name. One day, we who remain will be taken from this world and go to Him. If knowing what happens next doesn’t spur us on in reaching the lost, in living so that His light shines on others, in doing good works and showing kindness, in proclaiming the gospel by every deed and word we can find, whatever will? What happens next is also why it is critical to rebuild the church on her proper foundations, so that she will function as God intended, while He yet waits for the harvest. God’s work in God’s way isn’t an inconsequential matter of biblical trivia.
Look finally to the reformation, where sola scriptura was applied to salvation, then centuries later, to sanctification, and presently, sola scriptura is being applied to the church. This is the challenge to us today. To tear away the traditions and contraptions, but not to replace them with yet more human reasoning and ever new clever designs spawned in the foolish minds of men. As Paul said, we are labourers together with God: ye are God’s husbandry, ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ.’-I Cor 3:9-11
Some, desiring change in the church today, fear that a scriptural focus restrains the liberty of the Spirit to speak freshly and kills the freedom to create new structures and means. Some say it is a kind of idolatry to seek to be precise and concerned about doing God’s work in God’s way. That God was not specific and doesn’t actually have a design for the church. Still others fear that following scriptural principles breeds a mechanical, lifeless approach. Well, I suppose it can, but that isn’t the end of the matter if it matters to God. When T. Austin Sparks said, “The whole New Testament (Bible, if you like) is concerned with how things ought to be,” he tells us what God is concerned with: how things ought to be.
Let us labor and plan carefully, fearing God and not men, trusting that He is wiser than we, trusting in His power and not our own. Let us recall that all revival starts with repentance. Let us remember that the task is too big, the enemy too great, and we too small. But God is able to do “exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus.” And, let us remember that while men are not the judge of our works, God will be. We seek His well done. Let us labor knowing, “we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ; that every one may receive the things done in his body, according to that he hath done, whether it be good or bad.” II Cor 5:10
The day will reveal all. This can be a comfort or a fear.