A Pattern to Lean On (Mar-June 2010)

By Matt Dabbs

Tim Woodroof
March – June, 2010

PatternismYou are not unique.

Sorry to disappoint or offend you with such a blunt statement. (Perhaps it helps to know I’m not unique either.)

Oh, we might have unique fingerprints or voice patterns. My DNA may be particular to me, marking me uniquely. There may even be

flashes of uniqueness in our personalities and gifts.

But in the most fundamental (and important) ways, all men and women are alike. In fact, it is essential that we be so. It is the assumption of commonality that makes religion, science, art, business, politics, philosophy, and literature possible. We cannot think about humanity apart from the premise that – in every significant way – human beings are best described not by our idiosyncrasies but by our commonalities.

This is certainly true in matters of faith. It is the assumption of a spiritual common ground for humanity that gives meaning to key concepts about our relationship with God:

For God loved the world so much that he gave his one andonly Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life (John 3:16).

All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23).

No one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law (Galatians 2:16).
These statements are true of all people, at all times. You and I are not exceptions to these rules. Indeed, there are no exceptions. No one is “unique” in matters of the soul. All are loved by God; all have fallen; all are in need of redemption. These are the commonalities that give theological statements meaning. Without them, there could be no “Truth” written with a capital “T.”

When you think about it, it’s what we have in common that underlies our relationship with Scripture. Words written long ago about other people, to other people, matter to us because we have so much in common with them. Our similarities with the people of the Bible far outweigh our differences. We moderns may have cell phones and air conditioners, but such distinctions are made trivial by all humanity’s shared Creator and fallen nature and need for a Savior. It is this spiritual common ground that encourages us to believe soul-remedies offered to the ancients can heal us; that divine promises made to them can apply to us. In all the important ways, every man and woman is “a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine” (John Donne’s words) and has much in common with the rest of mankind, regardless of times and circumstances.

Because we are not unique, because we have so much in common, it is possible (in fact, it is necessary) to talk about “patterns.” There are “patterns” embedded in the human condition. There are “patterns” that mark the manner in which God interacts with us. There are “patterns” that define the rhythms, the ebb and flow, of our existence. The idea of “pattern” becomes powerful because human beings have so much in common, because God is “the same yesterday, today, and forever,” and because there really is “nothing new under the sun.”

Patterns

Pattern: A model or original used as an archetype; a person or thing considered worthy of imitation; a plan, diagram, or model to be followed.

Like gold dust flashing in a miner’s pan, “patterns” are the commonalities left at the bottom of existence after the dross of individuality is washed away. “Here is what we all share,” patterns tell us. “Here are the shapes and precedents that fit our lives.” “Here are life-paradigms, life-truths, that apply to every human being.”

The patterns (or “paradigms”) of Scripture address such important matters as who we are, how we’re broken and how we are healed, transformational moments that occur in every life, and the shape of life as it was meant to be. These patterns are embedded in stories about individuals we meet in the pages of the Bible. But, in some sense, the pattern is more important than the individual. Abraham, for example, may be an instance of the importance of God’s “calling” and the need for obedience to that calling. But the story of Abraham is bigger than Abraham’s particular call. The story preaches over Abraham’s head to all who read it: we also have a call on our lives … we also must hear and obey (like Abraham).

Thus, a careful reader of the Bible is aware that the story of Adam, Eve, and the Fall is not just a tragedy staring the first man and woman; it is the story of every life, a failure we all experience. The “journey” of Exodus was not just Israel’s expedition; it is the common lot of all human beings – wandering and wilderness and wavering.

The agony of “barrenness” isn’t only Sarah’s or Hannah’s pain; it is shared, in some sense, by us all. “Lost” and “found” are not merely qualities of sheep and coins and certain sons; those are “everyman” words. The dynamic of cross and resurrection, death and new life, does not shape Jesus’ life alone; all disciples experience that same two-step dance.  Each of these ideas (and others besides) belongs to a “pattern palette” the Bible dips into extensively, repeatedly. These are the primary colors from which sacred writers paint life in all its seeming complexity and variety.

The Old Testament has no interest in portraying unique personages without peer or compare. Rather, the stories found there tell of people who are “like us” in significant ways, people who teach us about our own lives by living theirs on the public canvas of Scripture.

Jesus painted from this same “pattern palette.” His parables, his aphorisms, his very life drew from these primary colors to teach life-lessons to a wide world: the seed that dies; the boy who remembers his father’s house; the King who returns for a reckoning. In a very real sense, Jesus’ teachings were not “original.” They were restatements, profound reminders, of patterns and themes already sounded in the Sacred Writings.

Paul relies on this same “pattern palette” when he draws on the fall of Adam, the faith of Abraham, and the stubbornness of Pharaoh to help Roman Christians understand key concepts of the gospel; he believed these themes and stories contained paradigmatic principles that applied to all people. The Hebrew writer used the rituals and experiences of Israel to instruct his Christian audience, convinced that Israel’s worship and life-style provided a pattern Christians could build a faithful life upon.

I say all that to state this: There is nothing wrong with the concept of “pattern” in the life of faith. Indeed, it is impossible to imagine being faithful apart from the assumption that all people have a great deal in common and that the faithfulness of people in the past can serve as both an encouragement to and a pattern for faithfulness in the present and future.

Which Pattern?

The real question is not whether we should shape our faith-lives by patterns but, instead, which patterns are truly worthy to shape a life and a movement. All religious movements dip into the reservoir of paradigm and most choose one or two patterns by which to define themselves. Because we are finite creatures, we rarely have the capacity to embrace the rich variety of patterns found in Scripture. We tend to emphasize one or two at the expense of others.
The pattern we place on center stage of our thinking and our lives will be the pattern that shapes us and defines us and (to a certain extent) dominates us. Because pattern matters, choosing the right pattern is important.

Of all the patterns and paradigms we (the Churches of Christ) could have chosen to emphasize, it was the first-century-church-model that became the blueprint on which we built our church. We became students of the church in Jerusalem, Corinth, and Rome. We modeled ourselves and our congregations after those congregations. We set about the challenging work of replicating in modern times the ancient and primitive rites of first century faith and practice. We identified and catalogued the early churches’ modes of worship, methods of outreach and cooperation, their structures for leadership, the names by which they called themselves, the ethical standards by which they lived, and the means by which they expressed and maintained community.

We chose this as our defining pattern because we believed that when we perfectly restored the first century pattern, we would usher in a revival of first century power and effectiveness. Function would follow form. We convinced ourselves that the harmony, fervor, and holiness we saw in the ancient church would break out afresh in the modern church-if only we could reinstate the church-pattern they followed. By “doing church” in the same way the ancients “did church,” we too could become a church that turned the world upside down, changed lives, and brought glory to God.

I’ll leave it to you to judge whether the evidence of the past one hundred and fifty years has proven that conviction true. Has our obsession with New Testament church-models resulted in more loving, united, and faithful communities of faith today? Has our close examination of the roles and methods of early church leadership translated into a vivid and compelling model of strong, faithful, visionary leadership in the church of our time? After all the dust has settled from our debates over the particular means by which disciples were saved and sanctified in the first-church, are we now known for producing passionate, committed, mature, bold, and evangelistic disciples?

The question I would pose instead is simply this: In choosing the first-century-church-model as the pattern at the heart of our movement and lives, did we run past an already existing pattern recommended by Jesus and the Apostles? What if identifying and focusing on the right pattern for life and church is so important that the choice of which pattern was never really left to us at all?

The gospel pattern

Part of what it means to be “Christian” is to accept the pattern Jesus sets as the defining paradigm of our lives and churches. In the language of the New Testament, that defining paradigm is called “the gospel.”

Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which youhave taken your stand. By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. For what I received Ipassed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day accordingto the Scriptures ….

It was the gospel that shaped the life and ministry of Jesus. It was why he came, it was what he preached, it was what he commissioned his Apostles to preach. It was the gospel that shaped the lives and ministries of the first disciples. They preached it and lived it and shaped their churches by it. Nothing was more central or defining for the early church than that bundle of themes, ideas, and truths known as “the gospel.”

In Paul, particularly, the gospel served as the defining pattern of his thought and work. He preached it. He believed he’d been “set apart” for it (Romans 1:1). He thought of himself as a “servant of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:7). He talked about it whole heartedly (Romans 1:9), eagerly (Romans 1:15), ambitiously (Romans 15:20), and with great delight (1 Thessalonians 2:8).

He believed it was a divine thing, rooted in the truth of God rather than human imagination (Galatians 1:11). He considered it “the power of God for salvation” (Romans 1:16). He became “all things to all men” for its sake (1 Corinthians 9:19-23). He was confident it contained matters “of first importance” for life and faith (1 Corinthians 15:3). He fought for it, defended it, suffered on its behalf.

And it was this gospel (Paul believed) that “established” disciples of Jesus and caused them to “stand firm” (Romans 16:25; 15:1). He talked about the gospel all the time in his letters to the early church. He repeatedly rehearsed its themes and reminded his churches of its importance. He would let nothing else take its place or hinder its effect in the hearts of his converts (1 Corinthians 9:13; Galatians 1:6-11). He urged believers to “hold firmly” to it (1 Corinthians 15:2). He was convinced that the gospel would bear spiritual fruit and cause spiritual growth (Colossians 1:6).

Ask Paul about the “pattern” that ought to shape a disciple’s life and the church’s character and he would answer simply: “The gospel.”
God, for his own reasons and purposes, created the heavens and the earth … he made human beings in his own image … we disobeyed and rebelled and were cast from God’s presence … he found ways to establish covenant relationship with us … when the time was right, he sent his own Son … Jesus died for our sins … he was raised to life by the power of God … we are reconciled with God through trusting his Son … transformed lives are now possible through the power of the Spirit … one day, Jesus is coming again and all the eternal purposes of God will be fulfilled.

Grand themes. Noble ideas. Spiritual common ground wide enough to embrace the world. Soul-remedies. Heady promises. A paradigm large enough for a life. Truth sufficient to build a movement upon.

I wonder what would have happened with us had we been content to keep first things first. I wonder what sort of people we’d have become had we kept this gospel front and center and relegated the pattern of the early church to its proper (and subservient) place. I wonder if we allowed restoration of the first church to become “another gospel” that was really no gospel at all.

If so, we are not unique. Others have allowed the essential gospel to be supplanted by some other, some lesser paradigm that, in the end, lacked the power to transform lives and sustain a movement. There is a pattern for this as well. There really is “nothing new under the sun.”New Wineskins
Tim WoodroofTim Woodroof journals at his site, [www.timwoodroof.com]. He chronicles the origin of the site by saying: “In July of 2008, after 25 years of full-time pulpit work and 10 years as the Senior Minister for the Otter Creek Church in Nashville, I knew the time had come for me to pursue a different kind of ministry. I wanted to help churches in trouble, be available to churches for speaking and training, work more closely with congregational shepherds and a younger generation of ministers, and devote more time to writing. Over the years of my ministry, I have been privileged to work with some great churches and struggle through some significant issues in the life of God’s people. But with that privilege comes an increasing sense of responsibility. I needed to share those experiences and conclusions with others.”

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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1577 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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