Family Resemblance

My good buddy Bill Heroman, a dedicated biblioblogger, forwarded me an insightful article written by Ken Schenck, a New Testament professor at Indiana Wesleyan University. In it, Schenck argues against seeking to establish, recover, or reinvent The Ideal Church. He does an excellent job.

He begins by explaining how Plato taught that, behind every real-life occurrence of anything, there is an ideal “form” (or Idea) of that thing. For Plato, that required an alternative world underneath this one in which reside all the ideal forms of everything (horses, buildings, people, love, etc). From that worldview, it was an easy step for many philosophers-turned-Christian to equate Plato’s forms with the apostle Paul’s “spiritual realm.” In fact, the two are synonymous for many thinkers even today. Somehow this notion leads us to search for the IDEAL New Testament church, and it leads us to imitate it as best as we can.

But Schenck warns that this is a misguided quest, because even the New Testament provides us with no such example of THE ideal church. There are only actual churches, varied and flawed in many diverse ways. I’ll contend that they had some similar characteristics which we are to emulate. But we are not to imitate them in every particular. Schenck illustrates it this way:

Over the centuries, thinkers have improved on Plato’s theory of ideas, I believe. For example, how do you recognize a member of my family, the Schenck family? Certainly there is DNA for those in my family who are not spouses or adopted. But is there some essence of a Schenck, an ideal Schenck?

Certainly a number of us Schencks (not me of course) are quite free to share their opinions on things rather outspokenly–and not always with enough prior thought. Certainly many of us like to eat. A good number of Schencks have, shall we say, robust figures that perhaps betray a Dutch heritage filled with lots of bread and mashed potatoes. Some of us have biggish noses and others big ears. Some of my cousins at least seem rather tall to me.

But there is no ideal Schenck. Apart from DNA, there is no common set of characteristics we all share–particularly those who have married into this assortment of Schencks. There is no Platonic Schenck, just a loose set of Schencky characteristics and family resemblances. [2] Some of us have some of them, and some of us have others. But none of us have all of them. [emphasis added]

Well put. In the same way, there is no ideal New Testament church to imitate. Just some “New Testamenty” characteristics which bind together churches birthed by the same Spirit of God. They are infinitely diverse and complex in their particular expression.

Much like the human face. People often tell me that three of my daughters look just like me (the fourth takes after my wife’s family). They meet the first one and say, “She looks just like you.” Then they meet the second, who looks different, and say “Wait, that one looks like you, too, but in a different way.” Then they meet the third, who looks plenty different from the first two, and they exclaim, “Now that one really DOES look like you!” All three different, yet somehow each looks like me in different ways.

That’s what being the church is like. We are a family that expresses the life of our Father, but we are diverse in how we do it. And that’s okay. We may not be okay with it, but I’m growing more and more suspicious that the Father sees it differently. Oh, sure, there are things that clearly don’t express who He is, and we should steer clear of those things: Self-interest, self-preservation, spite, pride, etc. None of those things look like Him. If we allow those things to grow unchecked within ourselves, we end up looking like we aren’t even His.

But showing ourselves to be His involves showing His love, His mercy, and His compassion more than it involves meeting a certain way, structuring our leadership in a certain way, or even understanding the Bible in a certain way. These kinds of things usually occupy our search for the IDEAL church, but have little to do with really living out who we are called to be.

God is highly creative, and His work in this world is appropriately fresh and creative as well. So don’t be too stuck on the HOW part. If you want to see the church lived out “as it should be,” then look around and see how He’s actually doing it today, in our midst. Where do you witness those tell-tale traits of His presence? Where do you see the fruit of the Spirit showing up? What’s going on there? Maybe that’s what He’s up to right now. And isn’t that always where we meet Him? In the real-life “now”?

It was 19 years ago today that the Father called me into His family, and I’d have to say that this notion represents the newest discovery that I’ve made over these (almost) two decades. Right now I’m learning what it looks like to follow Him in the messiness of reality (instead of in the pristine perfection of my own theology). I hope it all makes sense in print.


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4 Responses to “Family Resemblance”

  1. Mike Morrell Says:

    Well put! And I agree whole-hearteldy, in my own idiosyncratically Transmillennial way.

  2. e4unity Says:

    A belated happy 19th birthday Neil,and praise to the Father for the “clay pot” that He has been fashioning of this new creation in Christ.
    A very interesting thought related to the ideal church is to remember what the Lord told Moses about the first tabernacle: “See that you build it after the pattern showed to you on the Mount”. Of course we have a “better than Moses” as the Builder of the Church, who has known from the begining exactly what the Father’s eternal pattern for His People is”. If we keep all these things together, relating the local church to that heavenly reality and recognizing that it is Christ himself that is responsible to His Father for getting it right, than I think its proper for us to keep seeking the “ideal” church.

    J.C.Ryle had one of the best sermons I’ve ever found on the Church and Her builder called the “True Church”.

  3. e4unity Says:

    Hey, its me again. I checked on the J.C.Ryle thing and I gave you the name I put on it as a stand-alone document. Actually its chapter XIII in his book on “Holiness” and its called “The Church which Christ Builds”. I highly recommend the whole book if you do not know it.

  4. Goody Says:

    Hi Neil. Funny that I would just happen to open your blog. (Not funny like ha ha.) I have been thinking along these lines, wondering and waiting.

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