–October of 1999
Guardians and Gardeners
To prepare my mind for a sermon I was to preach on Freshman Sunday, I decided to walk with the Apostle Paul on his last earthly journey. I joined Paul as he gave his farewell to the Ephesian elders and started for Jerusalem. I left him in chains at Rome. As I traveled with him, I listened very closely to what would be his final words. Emotion filled his exhortations to faithfulness as well as his warnings against false teachers and moral perversity. Yet one theme kept surfacing. Paul again and again reminded young Timothy of his responsibility to “guard” that which had been committed to him. Paul left Timothy and me with a clear understanding that we have been entrusted with a guardianship—guardianship which demands that we must be willing to lay down our life for the truths of the gospel and spiritual reality. However, as I read closer, I saw that Paul meant more than just standing like a sentry over scriptural revelation and doctrinal truth. He meant more than just being a watchdog agency over orthodoxy. To Paul our “guardianship” would also include a “gardenership.”
Dr. Theodore Kalsbeek, a prominent Cincinnati minister, helped me to see this in a story he recently told of a Russian czar who came upon a sentry standing at attention in a secluded portion of his palace garden. Seeing no particular reason for having a sentry stationed at that particular place in the garden, he asked the sentry what he was guarding. The young man replied, “I don’t know, sir. I was ordered to my post by the Captain of the Guard.” When the czar asked the Captain of the Guard, he could give no other reason than the simple fact that the regulations called for it. The czar went to the archives and searched for the origin of the command. He discovered that many years earlier Catherine the Great had planted a rose bush at that place in the garden and ordered a sentry to be posted beside it to protect it from being trampled. The rose bush has been dead for over 100 years but the regulation to guard it remained.
This colorful story out of Russian history makes a forceful point for the church today. Like Catherine’s rose bush, the church could die despite the presence of a sentry. It is certainly true that the church needs guardians. It is equally true that the church must have gardeners. Watching is not enough. There must be workers that nurture and build the church. It is also equally true that the church needs guardians who know clearly what they are watching over.
Finding this balance has been difficult for the church. Historically, every time the church has made the preservation of orthodoxy its focus, it has become scrutinizing, loveless, divisive, intolerant and legalistic. In its effort to defend and purify itself it has usually only succeeded in destroying itself.
On the other hand, when the church has neglected its role as guardian for the sake of outreach, it has often become accommodating, compromising, worldly, and shallow—characteristics which have been the breeding ground for all forms of heresy.
John R.W. Stott, commenting on this problem, said, “It is easy to be faithful if you don’t care about being contemporary. It is also easy to be contemporary if you don’t care about being faithful.” The church must find the balance. It must be both a guardian and a gardener.