We Have a Rot Problem

In a recent Deep Conversation episode, Travis spoke with Trevin Wax who said that we are in a moment where there’s a lot of rot in the Church. 

I grew up helping my dad work around the house on projects from framing walls to building furniture. I learned the danger of rot in a hurry. Buildings collapse from rot. Great hardwood slabs that would make beautiful furniture end up in the fire because of it. “Dry rot” is caused by a fungus and, ironically requires moisture. Water will do a number on untreated lumber. Carpenter ants, Termites and powder post beetles will chew through wood leaving little behind.

The thing is, rot is not always apparent. To be sure, some places are more likely to facilitate rot than others, but if you aren’t paying attention, you can be fooled. Layers of paint can hide serious structural damage. The beautiful ivy growing on a wall can snake behind siding and even masonry.

We tend to think we know where the rot comes from. And we may have a good idea. But we have to be careful that we don’t get over confident. Wax said,

[U}nfortunately, a lot of times conservative leaning people in order to protect the institution, wind up, not intentionally, but they wind up defending rot. And unfortunately progressive leaning people in order to purge the institution, wind up, blowing up foundational pillars.

It’s really important to recognize that both sides tend to have, or at least start with, good motivations. The institution is important. Rot does need to be excised. Both are true. But if we compromise what the institution was created for by defending rot, what good does it do? The building is going to crash down around us, it just might take a while. And if we take down the foundational support in order to get rid of the real rot within, then, well, the building will crash even sooner.

The real work, the hard work is twofold: Identifying where the rot actually is, and removing it in a way that preserves the integrity of the building. Only then can the necessary repairs be made. Who knows, the repair might even make the whole structure stronger in the long run—that should be our goal. Wax said this takes both patience and humility. I think he is absolutely correct. Anyone who has ever tried to find the source of a roof leak knows it takes time and dedication to figure out where the problem is. Water can travel a far distance from the source. It pools and rot forms in places far removed from the problem. Humility is crucial because we need to recognize that we don’t always have all the answers and there are some things that we cannot fix on our own.

The Church in the West is used to being the expert in the room, the one that has all of the resources and all of the answers. The problem is, we know we have the resources. And we forget that the Church has existed for a long time in a lot of places that are not now and don’t look or sound like us. This is why Wax’s charge to us is so important:

So I think the task for us in the next generation is going to be a lot of rebuilding. We talk a lot about deconstruction these days. I think there’s going to have to be a reconstructing project that takes place in which we actually remove the rot and we fortify the foundations. And I think we can do that at the same. To do that well we’re going to have to know the difference between rot and foundations. 

And I think the only way you can really discern the difference between those two though, is to be acquainted with the church throughout history and be acquainted with the church around the world. You need a good dose of church history. And we need a really strong connection to the global church. And I think that’s how you’re able to get out of this American chaos right now and have the right kind of perspective on the moment and what we should do moving forward.

We have to remember that the Church has existed for 2,000 years. We didn’t invent it in 20th century North America. Some of the issues we are facing today have actually been dealt with many times and even hundreds (or thousands!) of years ago. It helps to remember that pretty much all of Paul’s letters are to churches that were experiencing rot in the very first generation of the Church! 1 Corinthians reads like a virtual crash course in rot detection and removal: divisions, boasting, sexual sin, lawsuits, and that’s just a quick survey of headings from the first six chapters. Unfortunately, a quick look at today’s headlines show not a lot has changed. 

Sometimes our brothers and sisters around the world today can see things that we cannot. Sometimes they have expertise that we do not. We need the humility to listen. The Church around the world often functions in places where being a Christian is not at all easy. They can be an example to us of how to love our enemies. Sometimes, their cultures offer we Westerners a prophetic reminder that we are called to be part of the Body of Christ, not simply individual consumers of spiritual products.

In these ways and more, Trevin’s call to be acquainted with Church history and the global Church so that we can discern the difference between rot and foundations is crucial for our time. If you haven’t had the chance to listen to episode 105 with Trevin, I strongly encourage you to do so. You won’t regret it.

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Kevin O'Brien

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