Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Are you more attached to the vessel or the treasure?

Dallas Willard never disappoints. He was an amazing theologian, author, and lover of God. I have been savoring his book, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, and today I reached the end. He finishes on a high point, talking about one of the most common problems of the Western church, which is a passion for the vessel rather than the treasure. Let me explain.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
From the earliest days of the church, the treasure--the Gospel--has been delivered by means of  various vessels--or religious traditions. Even Jesus presented his message through the vessel of Judaism. And then the early church--where the people of God became unified based on creed rather than race--experienced a change of vessel. And from that time forward, through various times and cultures, numerous vessels have appeared. Some die out, other endure for centuries. Some cross borders, and other thrive only within certain people groups. All carry (or should carry) the same, priceless treasure.

But eventually, we lose sight of the fact that there is a difference between the vessel and the treasure, and we begin to elevate the status of the vessel, we fall in love with the vessel, and finally, we begin to bicker and fight over the truth and value of the vessel, all the while losing sight of that original intent of the vessel--which was to reveal the glory of the treasure.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
I first began to experience the reality of the tension back when we did our pre-field training. At one point we were given an assignment to determine which qualities were essential in order for an organization to be considered a church (a vessel). We were given a two-page list of characteristics that read something like this:
  • Baptism must be by immersion
  • Baptism is accomplished by a sprinkling of water
  • Infants should be baptized
  • Children may be baptized
  • Only adults can be baptized
  • Communion is shared every week
  • Communion is shared quarterly
  • Communion must consist of wafer and wine
  • Wine must not be used in communion
  • Communion can be taken by visitors
  • Children cannot take communion
  • Only people who have been baptized may take communion
  • Only people who have been baptized in our denomination may take communion
  • Only people baptized in our church may take communion
  • All members should tithe 10% of their gross income
  • All members should tithe 10% of their net income
  • All members should give cheerfully, as they feel led
Mind you, this is just a sampling of the list--it went on and on and on. For our assignment, we had to choose the items that were absolute non-negotiables for us in terms of a church. We thought and prayed and debated, and when we went to bed that night David said, "I've got two." and I said, "Me too. I have two non-negotiables." We had checked the same two items:
  • The Bible is the inspired Word of God
  • Salvation through Christ alone
Now that isn't to say we didn't have preferences or even strong beliefs about the other issues. But we had two non-negotiables--the least of all the people in our class. The next fewest was, I believe, seven. The class average was thirteen.

Photo Credit: Jordan Egli Photography
Here's the thing. We have to have a vessel. Even if we don't think it is essential to have communion X number of times per year, we need to decide how often and when we will take communion; similar decisions must also be made about baptism, worship styles, women in ministry, and how the gifts of the Spirit will be employed (or not). So you can't get away from having a vessel. But we must get away from turning the vessel into the treasure. Because when we don't, we start bickering over non-essentials, and sadly, that tends to be what the world knows us for. We take up denominational and traditional teams, forgetting that we share the same treasure. And then the glory of the treasure gets blurred by our silly skirmishes.

And why do we so easily come to blows?  Because we are afraid of getting something wrong. In fact, that is why we choose the vessels we choose--in an effort to protect the integrity of the treasure. And so with mostly good motives, we cling to the vessel, wrongly believing it to be the source of the treasure's strength. But the treasure has a strength of its own! The vessel is not needed to protect the treasure, only to display its glory.

Willard so wisely reminds the reader that we love being right so much that we do all the wrong things to defend our rightness. He writes, "Anyone who thinks God only blesses what is 'right' has had a very narrow experience and probably does not really understand what God has done for them."

Our pastor in the States once defined a denomination as "a group of people who all agree to be wrong about the same things." What he meant was that while most denominations believe that have gotten everything right, the truth is, we can't all have it all right. Which means that we all have some of it wrong. And yet, based on Willard's quote and my experience, God blesses us. Yes, he blesses us even though we have some things wrong.

Now that isn't to say that we shouldn't all do our very best to get as much as we can right when creating a vessel for the Gospel. But it is to say that we should be very wary of condemning or criticizing someone else's vessel. And even more importantly, we must hold loosely to our chosen vessel while clinging tightly to the treasure.

This is why David and I are thankful that we have experienced a broad range of denominations. This is why we have exposed our children to churches of various traditions. When you fully grasp the greatness of the treasure, the vessel carries little importance.

But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves. 2 Corinthians 4:7

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