A CHURCH member spoke to me after a worship service about his difficulties with his church. He felt that the church was not living up to its calling.
He revealed his frustrations about the lack of commitment and seriousness among church members, and the fact that some, if not many, were more worldly than Christian. There were leaders whose approach to things was carnal rather than spiritual. Some of these people may not even be saved.
I shared with him that this was an old problem in the church; people like Augustine and Martin Luther had struggled with the same issues in their days. I encouraged him to remain in church and to play a part in forming oases of true biblical Christianity – in small groups of faithful and committed Christians – so that the larger church can be strengthened.
We may want to think more deeply about this problem and get some help from Augustine, Luther, and others. A huge controversy emerged during Augustine’s lifetime. The Roman emperor, Diocletian. had issued an edict in 307 AD that resulted in severe persecution of Christians. Books were burned, churches were destroyed. During this period, several Christians, including clergy, compromised their faith by betraying their fellow-Christians or handing over Christian scriptures to be burned. They were called traditores (those who handed over).
When the persecution ended, the tables were turned, and the new emperor, Constantine, became a Christian. Many traditores returned to positions of leadership. The bishops and priests who came from their ranks were unacceptable to a growing group of Christians known as Donatists.
The Donatist argument was this: the church must be a society of saints; it has no place for traditores, even if they had repented. This controversy divided the church into Donatist and Catholic sections. By the end of the 4th century, there were more Donatists than Catholics in North Africa. That was when Augustine, who lived in that region, dealt with the issue by challenging the Donatist position. This is not the place to discuss his full argument, but for our purposes, we must note his point that the church was not a society of saints but a mixed body of saints and sinners.
Augustine used the parable of the wheat and weeds (Mt. 13:24-31) as a foundation for his argument.
In that parable, the Lord compared the Kingdom of Heaven to a man sowing good seed in his field. But in the shadows of the darkness of night, his enemy sowed weeds among the wheat. In time, both the wheat and the weeds appeared side by side. A conversation ensued between the original sower and his servants. Puzzled, the servants asked, “Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?” The sower replied, “An enemy did this,” revealing that he knew what the enemy was doing. The servants then asked whether they should pull out the weeds. The sower stopped them, saying, “while you are pulling the weeds, you may root up the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn”.
Augustine used this parable to point out that the church will be a mixed community till the end, when the good and evil, the sheep and the goats will be separated (Mt. 25:31-46). It is the Lord who will do this. AUGUSTINE’S point was taken up and reiterated, several centuries later, by Martin Luther, the great Reformer. Luther sought to reform the church’s doctrines, structures and morality. While this had great impact, some felt that his reforms did not go deep enough. The church in many places was still a social and cultural institution, rather than a true community of pure believers. Those who held this radical position were called Anabaptists (re-baptisers).
One of the practices they opposed was infant baptism, which they claimed resulted in church members who may not be truly believers. They, therefore, practised only adult baptism following repentance and profession of faith. The Anabaptists expected high commitment and true Christian living from their members. They condemned the more institutional churches as being full of deadwood. The church should be “an assembly of the righteous”.
In challenging the Anabaptists, Luther repeated Augustine’s earlier arguments. The church has both saints and sinners. John Calvin, Luther’s fellow Reformer, shed further light by talking about the visible and invisible church. The visible church has both God’s children and those who are not. But the invisible church has only true believers, and will be the only church at the end of time.
What can we learn from all this history? There are two dangers we must avoid. Firstly, we must not get so discouraged by the imperfections and dysfunctional realities of the institutional church that we leave the church altogether. There are some prominent atheists today who were once regular church-goers; it is tragic. Those who are frustrated and upset about the church must find some comfort in the realism of Augustine and the Reformers, and the fact that God is not finished with the church and human history.
Secondly, and on the other hand, we must not use the “wheat and weeds” argument to lull ourselves into accepting the status quo, and do nothing about the situation. Augustine and the Reformers themselves sought to challenge nominal Christianity and half-hearted attempts at Christian discipleship. Churches that exist for some length of time tend to become more nominal and institutionalised, losing their first love and the heart of their calling.
To prevent this, each generation must experience God afresh, fearing Him and loving Him, and aspiring to be truly faithful to Him.
The right approach would be to begin with ourselves and ensure that we are faithful to the Lord, seeking to love Him with all our hearts. We must encourage fellow church members to do likewise. Find pockets of true Christian community within the church in the form of small groups. Live honestly and faithfully, encouraging one another. Accept that the weeds have been sown in our midst.
The goats may do damage and they must be restrained or challenged. But the flock cannot be cleared of all the goats. We must wait for the Lord to do that. Meanwhile, we each must ensure that we are a sheep in the flock, and not a goat.