War of the Periwinkles

 An island garden

An island garden

I wish you could have seen my garden this year. I didn’t plant anything exotic, just tomatoes and periwinkles, but the plot was something to see.

This parcel of ground is actually located above ground in two feed troughs from Tractor Supply. I haven’t determined just how much land I have, but conservatively speaking it is somewhat less than a section.

As the growing season progressed I conquered the aphids and the lace bugs seem now confined to one pyracantha out front. Black spot on my roses was not bad this year, although I have no idea why, and the fires ants that have officially made it to our neighborhood are not yet on Wilshire.               

This year was hot, but nowhere close to record-setting. Still, the sun seemed to be burning up my tomato plants. I watered, pinched the “suckers’ off from between the blooms, shook the plants to aid pollination, and even said kind words of encouragement to the plants as I passed them.

It was while uprooting pecan saplings planted by the squirrels that I made a startling discovery: My mostly brown vines were being attacked by dreaded, red spider mites. Who knew?

The battle raged. I used soapy water. I sprayed with the jet spray. I nurtured lady bugs to eat the spiders. Eventually, I pumped insecticides into the war effort, and I’m proud to say I harvested two tomatoes before our first freeze wiped out everything—the vines, the mites, and the periwinkles—all in one frigid breath.

Up until the Big Freeze, which in North Texas means the mercury plummeted all the way to twenty-nine, I thought more than once about pulling up the whole mess (i.e. the garden), but I couldn’t do it. The tomatoes looked awful, but the periwinkles looked great. To uproot the one would uproot the other. So I suffered through the spider-blighted tomatoes and enjoyed the flowers as best I could.

This is a rough parallel, but allow me to digress to another field in which you and I both labor and have a share: the church.

Using a similar parable, Jesus described a plot of ground planted with both wheat and tares (a wheat look-alike that is really a weed). When the weeds were first discovered, the workers thought to pull up the tares, but they decided against it after talking to the boss because doing so would uproot the wheat as well. They allowed both to grow side by side—even intertwined—and waited for harvest to separate the two (Mt. 13:24-30).

It seemed incredulous, but Jesus said it Himself in describing the Kingdom of God on Earth, also known as the Church: Not everyone in the church organization is a member of the Church organism. The fundamental distinction is that an organism has life while an organization is nothing more than an institution.

In more traditional terminology, there are believers and unbelievers—tares and wheat—who meet together in a brick and mortar building at the corner of 1st and Main and call themselves, the church. These folks look similar, act similar, and call themselves by the same name, yet they are at opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum. 

These church members whom Jesus described as tares are just as vested in the organization of the church as those whom He described as wheat. Most work to further the organization, have high moral and ethical convictions, and are an overall asset to the system. But, they don’t know Jesus Christ personally. They are part of the organization. They are not part of the organism.

We must not be so impressionable as to think the tares will have no effect on the wheat. It would be safe to conclude, based upon Jesus’ remarks in Matthew, that there might be tares—unbelievers—in the committee of deacons, the board of elders, the finance committee, the choir, the educational structure, and even the church staff.

As a general rule, tares are not malicious. But the fact remains: Folks who haven’t met Jesus Christ do not have a regenerate mind and heart. So, how should we expect them to understand spiritual matters? Why should we assume that it is their priority to see the organism propagate life? Why are we surprised when their priorities are different than ours? If push comes to shove, why are we caught off guard when they opt for the good of the organization at the expense of the organism?

If you remove Life from the church, what you are left with is not a great deal different from the country club. Both are social organizations committed to furthering the health and welfare of their members and the surrounding community. You pay dues to both (e.g. tithes, special projects), eat at both (e.g. Wednesday evening meals), meet regularly, share common interests (e.g. golf on one hand and church matters in the Family Life Center on the other), promote social awareness, provide healthy programs for the family, connect in common networks of affinity and social status, etc.

The parallel is a little sobering. But it’s only gripping when you take the Life out of the organism and are left with an organization.

Jesus made another statement pertinent to the issue at hand: “…be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves,” He said (Mt. 10:16). In other words, don’t be naïve.

Just because the organization is called a church doesn’t mean you’ve got a pure wheat field. There are tares in with the wheat just as there were diseased tomatoes in with the periwinkles. For now, if you are going to enjoy the flowers, you’ve got to put up with the vines.

Does this constitute heresy? Isn’t the church the bride of Christ? Isn’t the church the vessel through which God intends to reach a lost and dying world?

Yes. The paragraphs above do sound heretical. And yes, to the other questions as well. But remember the definitions above: What we are calling the church is, in reality, comprised of both believers and unbelievers, wheat and tares. The church is both an organism and an organization, one living, one dead. The Church living and the church corporate are not the same, nor are they interchangeable.

I have experience with churches that have exerted tremendous influence in my Christian life. I also have experience with churches that were more of a hurdle than a help. Chuck Swindoll wrote, “We’re the only outfit (the church) I know that shoots its wounded.” That’s sad, but I know what he means. I have been shot at more by the “church” than by the enemy.

I hope you don’t taste bitterness in my words. My intentions are quite the contrary. I want to encourage you. I want to see you survive, to walk in victory, to be wise to the enemy’s tactics. I don’t want you to get blindsided by the organization thinking it is an organism. Most of all, I don’t want you to allow the spider-mited tomato vines to spoil the periwinkles.

You must not be surprised if your needs are not met by the corporate church. Don’t be amazed if you find improprieties. Worse yet, don’t be stunned if you are kicked while you’re down. If you run headlong into the organization and it reminds you of dealing with the IRS, don’t be bewildered. This is the nature of organizations and bureaucracies. As I said before, you have to put up with the dying tomato plants to enjoy the vibrant flowers.

Not long ago, I was bogged down in the organization of a church. I was lamenting my predicament to a friend who said, “Pres, I view myself as an infiltrator into the church.” Good counsel and great perspective.

A plan began forming in my mind as soon as my friend said what he said, a plan that I have since put into practice. Because the organization and the organism are inextricably interwoven, I must attach myself to the organism as I infiltrate the organization. This is what I mean by enjoying the periwinkles while tolerating the dead tomatoes.

You must be the judge of what distinguishes the organism from the organization in your church, but the rudimentary quality of any organism is life. Feeding and caring for an organism produces and reproduces life, both in you and others. Feeding the organization only augments the bureaucracy. This isn’t necessarily bad. After all, we need structure and organization. But we must never conclude that because an organization has wheat inside it that the organization is alive.

Life begets life. Organizations are simply managed.

I write more about this subject in my novel, Battle for the Round Tower. You can purchase it here