Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wagon train

I’m going to piggyback on a question that John Bugay addressed over at Beggars All. Catholics frequently challenge Evangelicals to specify when “the Church” went off-track. Their assumption being that unless we can single out a particular turning-point in church history when things went wrong, then it’s somehow invalid for us to say Catholicism deviated from the truth once delivered.

The problem, as usual, is that Catholics begin with their own definition of “the Church.” But Protestants don’t think “the Church” went off-track, since we don’t define “the Church” in such monolithic terms. Rather, the church of Rome went off the rails.

Moreover, the church is not an individual person. The church doesn’t move in unison. Rather, the church is like a caravan or wagon train.

Suppose you ask, when did the caravan turn? Well, there’s no simple answer to that question since the caravan is made up of different wagons, moving at different speeds, in different positions within the caravan. Some may fall behind. Some may overtake others. You have leaders and stragglers. Some wagons stop to bury the dead, or make repairs.

Are you asking, when did the “front-end of the caravan turn? The back-end? The middle?

Suppose the caravan comes to a fork in the road. Some wagons may turn right while others turn left. Different wagons turn in different directions at different times. Each wagon has its own pace. Its own itinerary.

Likewise, it can keep subdividing at each fork in the road. On the other hand, this doesn’t necessarily mean the caravan gets smaller each time. Babies are born during the trek. It’s possible to built new wagons in transit. Likewise, wagons can join up with some train for a time, then leave it for another. Band and disband at will.

For you may have a wave of caravans. Each caravan has its own rhythm. And they are spaced out at irregular intervals. An ebb and flow. Likewise, there may be continuous turnover in the composition of the caravan. Consider immigrant trails in American history, viz. the Oregon Trail and the California Trail.

At the same time, it’s also possible to make some general statements about aggregate units. If a wagon train splits when it comes to a fork in the road, you can still make some general statements about each wagon train. Maybe 90% of the wagons went left, while 10% went right. It’s possible to say who took a wrong turn. Possible to say who’s headed in the right direction.

Back when I was a boy, there was a TV series called Wagon Train. That’s when the Western genre was still a staple of TV drama.

And when you think of it, a wagon train is a fine metaphor for the church as the people of God. I can imagine John Ford shooting Acts 7 or Heb 11 as a wagon train headed west.


  1. I really liked Wagon Train. Ward Bond was great. And I loved Robert Horton as the scout.

    Acts 7 going west? You mean Stephen is the wagon train master, and the bad guys kill him?

    Just trying to understand with my pea brain.

  2. I'm mean the history of the OT saints could be recast as a wagon train. And that could also include the villains.

  3. Oregon Trail has been one of my favorite games. It's gone through several iterations but I've always enjoyed the feel of that game.

  4. Oregon Trail has been one of my favorite games.

    Except when you're playing as the shoemaker and your only oxen dies while fording the river.

  5. Whoa Nellie!

    This is really pushing and stretching the metaphor/analogy to the max!

    Heh, heh.

  6. The expression "church" itself is a theologically loaded term, and likely part of the problem.

    Underlying the English word "church" but written in Greek as ἐκκλησία (G1577) was the Aramaic idea of 'assembly' (קָהֵל ) which appears numerous times throughout old-covenant scripture.

    The Greek word was understood to be consistent with old-covenant usage, and intended to convey the exact same meaning.

    Before anyone objects, look at the context of its common usage ([Acts 5:11] talks about the whole church which denoted both those in Jerusalem and those beyond; [Acts 13:1] speaks of the church at Antioch which was not a self-contained separate thing, but a localised sub-component of a larger whole.)

    Asking the question, "when did the church go off the rails" could be answered "it did so the very second faithful believers ceased to understand exactly what the church denoted" (because it led to abuse of the theological concept of assembly)

    In other words, the moment the word used to denote the chosen assembly of covenant faithful, ceased to denote the entire body of God-seeking, covenant-honouring, scripture-believing faithful (imperfect as it was), and began to mean something else - is when the 'church' started to go off the rails.

    This comment doesn't address the historical question the post raises, but the whole idea of a Church of Rome or even a Reformed Christian theological 'Church' where 'church' has been divorced from its original aramaic meaning, kind of falls in the same category.

    One thing worth pondering is that the original word church, congregation, or assembly, denoted both uniformity of belief and diversity in maturity of belief.

  7. Hi Ekklesia -- you said, One thing worth pondering is that the original word church, congregation, or assembly, denoted both uniformity of belief and diversity in maturity of belief.

    Do you have any more background information on this topic that you could point to?

  8. John Bugay wrote "Do you have any more background information on this topic that you could point to?"

    John, you can get a sense of it in old-covenant scripture simply by considering the instances when God interacted with the assembly of Israel or when the assembly came together to worship, celebrate or sacrifice.

    It is more evident in the days of Elohim (when worship was at Shiloh, and Israel had a Holy-of-Holies surrounded by canvas) rather than the days of Yahweh (when worship had been moved to Jerusalem and Israel had a Holy-of-Holies surrounded by a stone temple), likely because Israel had grown so large under David and Solomon that worship had become less intimate.

    Academically I'm not aware of anyone who is specifically interested in this or has published on it, so unfortunately I can't point out formal resources.

    I recommended pondering it, only because it is evident in scripture and suggests a way for us to reform our thinking about 'church'.

    Sorry I can't be more helpful.

  9. Ekklesia, those are good things to think about, and I found them very helpful.

  10. Earlier this week I read an entry over at Parchment and Pen about Glenn Beck's theology and the way it got framed over there is to liken it to the question, "How many hairs must a man grow on his face before he really has a beard?" The point isn't that you can really pinpoint that number but that once there are enough hairs for the beard people can see that there's really a beard. A 5 o'clock shadow isn't a beard. The analogy in the question about the beard could as easily be turned around by Protestants who can ask what, precisely, constitutes all the things that are so wrong within Protestantism.

  11. Wenatchee

    I have been to a few countries and beards are not all the same hair count!

    The oriental beard and the beards of Tirana are not the same as the eskimos! The big bushy beards of the Nordics can carry a lot of weight! :)

    As for your "wagon train" thread, Steve, I liken it unto some Scriptures!

    Can some see the picture of these things from these verses?

    Psa 46:4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.
    Psa 46:5 God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

    Rev 22:1 Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
    Rev 22:2 through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

    Tell me, if you can, when is the last time you ever saw a River flow making streams that are Glad? :)

    Don't tributaries contribute to the size of the brooks, streams, rivers that flow to the seas?

    I think God has it all backwards, if asking me? :0:)