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.