In the beginning, in Eden, God planted a garden to the east. In the west was a mountain sanctuary, where the unfallen Lucifer Himself walked back and forth in the midst of the fiery stones. A river flowed out of the sanctuary to water the garden, and from the garden it divided into four rivers and watered the world. After the fall, Adam and Eve are sent further east, away from the sanctuary and out of the garden. The way back into the presence of God is upriver, westward, but it is blocked by an angel with a flaming sword.
In the end, the New Jerusalem descends from heaven to earth, and a river of the water of life flows from under the throne of God and of the Lamb.
The river that waters the world flows from the sanctuary; the life of the world flows from the focus of worship. This is true in the beginning, and it is true in the end. But what about in between?
In between, there is development.
In Abraham’s time, there is no river. He travels a desolate land, digging wells, building altars and sitting under trees. He worships God at the altars, and God hears him. But there is only still water in his wells, and only temporarily. After time, he has to leave the well and move on to the next place. The water does not flow.
In the Tabernacle, there is once again a sanctuary, and the laver provides a portable well. It’s not a river; it’s just still water. At least it travels with them, but the water does not flow.
In the Temple, the sanctuary stays in one place. The bronze Sea provides water, and arrayed in front of the Sea, extending toward the east, is a double row of water chariots. It’s a picture of a river, of flowing water. But even so, the “river” doesn’t flow outside the temple—if you want to see it, you have to come in; the water doesn’t come to you.
And then on that great day of the feast, Jesus stood up and cried out, “He who believes on Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.” John adds that Jesus was speaking of the Holy Spirit.
Through the Holy Spirit, the life-giving river is restored to the world. Every believer is the sanctuary, and from every sanctuary, the living water flows. The Body of Christ on earth waters the world, and will do so until the day that our Head, the Lamb of God, sets His throne in Jerusalem, and the water pours from under His throne.
The river flows from the sanctuary, and wherever you find the river flowing from, there is the sanctuary. Where the people of the river congregate to worship, there you find the church, and where you find the church, you will find an outpost of the Church.
The continuity of the Church is not a continuity of ordinations, as Rome would have it, nor even a continuity of baptisms, as some of the Reformed (e.g., Doug Wilson) would have it, nor yet a continuity of litmus-test scheme of spiritual stages, as though becoming Christlike were like becoming an Eagle Scout. It is a continuity of experience, the experience of living water, an actual relationship with the living Christ. It’s the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, and we ought to guard it as Paul instructed us.
This is my ecclesiology.
The water appears in surprising places.
I have met a man who was desperately concerned that every last jot and tittle of his doctrine be in order, precise and technically correct to the last syllable. Given what he knew, he ought to have been a fountain, and yet his every word was poison. I have met a muddled, confused believer who hardly knew anything, and knew it, and yet the water gushed from her in torrents.
Watch these two for a year, or five. The second one will be less confused, more knowledgeable, and still a spring of life-giving water. The first one, unless God intervenes dramatically, will still be making converts twice as much a son of hell as himself, and his doctrine will grow steadily more perverse.
The water is the first thing. With it, we grow. Without it, we die, and too often, we take others with us.
The water flows from the saints of past ages, men and woman who walked with God. Many of them were deeply confused, or just plain wrong, about things that seem quite obvious to us.
No doubt they would say the same of us — and they’d be right, just as we are. “He who believes in Me, as the Scriptures have said” Jesus cried, “out of his belly will flow rivers of living water.” The criterion here is not perfection; if it were,we would qualify no better than anyone else. Thank God, it’s much simpler than that: believe in Jesus.
Many do, in many traditions, and the water flows from them, as Jesus promised.
My friends in other traditions are certain that I will convert. No one can think so highly of the Book of Common Prayer and not become Anglican, one friend will say. “Five years,” another says, “and you’ll be Eastern Orthodox.” (The first time someone told me that was ten years ago.) A third friend says that because I believe in miracles and answered prayer, I’m a charismatic in my heart. I ought to quit kicking against the goads and just come to his church, he tells me.
On the other hand, a number within my own (evangelical fundamentalist) tradition are equally certain that I am converting to something else — the Roman church, the emergent church, a generic postmodernism…
I am not. I intend to stay right where I am. So why do I drink deeply from so many sources outside my own tradition? Am I discontent? Well, yes; my tradition needs reform. But I am not seeking to turn my tradition into some other tradition, nor am I trying to assemble some unholy pomo-pastiche of “the greatest hits of Christendom,” as though I could get it right where all other traditions have failed. I am doing something much simpler than that: Christian fellowship. Where the water flows, I drink — and the water flows in the most surprising places. Wherever God graciously permits me to find it, I take it and share as much as I can with the people among whom God has called me to serve. I can do no more, and in good conscience neither can I do any less.