It has been said that the seven last words of the church are: “We’ve never done it that way before.” It is astonishing that the church continues even though it has been collectively saying that since the beginning. The Old Testament church thought they had it right, then Jesus came along and wanted to change things. Gratefully his plaque only lasted three days. But it has been much the same since then. The early church bickered about the handling of finances (Acts 6:1), suffered from sharp personality conflict (Acts 15:39), and required arbitrary ritual conduct (Acts 21:20ff). As the years have passed the church has become institutionalized, and splintered off into hundreds of denominations, each with its own distinctives, doctrines, and disagreements with the others. There is much to regret when reviewing church history.
Yet the church, the people of God, survive and flourish. In spite of the institution of the church, the body of the church manages to plod along through time, haltingly, against the odds:
I think God must be very old and very tired. Maybe he used to look splendid and fine in his general’s uniform, but no more. He’s been on the march a long time, you know. And look at his rag-tag little army! All he has for soldiers are you and me. Dumb little army. Listen! The drum beat isn’t even regular. Everyone is out of step. And there! You see? God keeps stopping along the way to pick up one of his tinier soldiers who decided to wander off and play with a frog, or run in a field, or whose foot got tangled in the underbrush. He’ll never get anywhere that way. And yet, the march goes on.69
It is a good thing that God helps his army along or it would have been lost long ago. Not only do the tinier soldiers go off absent without leave to chase frogs, but not a few of the bigger soldiers decide they’ve marched enough and it’s time to settle down, so they build a fortress. When the fortress is under construction nothing is taken for granted, everything is new and exciting, and there is purpose in all of the soldier’s steps. However, as the years go by, daily duties that once had meaning evolve into habits without a beginning. The habits become rituals, the purpose of which has been lost but the importance of keeping has not. Indeed, attending to the rituals has grown in gravity over time. And eventually the fortress becomes a monument to God.
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