March 15, 2020

Collective Faith And Turtles (The Armor, part 10)


Wolves have long been one of my favorite wild animals. It’s not surprising, because I love dogs, I grew up owning dogs, and at times during my childhood, I spent more time alone with my dogs than with other kids my age. I have been described by numerous people throughout my life as a loner, so I suppose it makes sense that I have often felt a kind of kinship with the trope of the lone wolf.

While it’s true that a lone wolf can be an effective hunter, such a beast will find itself limited to small prey. But a pack of wolves? That’s a different story. Wolf packs are among the most successful of nature’s hunting parties, able to bring down prey that would be impossible for (or even deadly to) a lone wolf.

Believe me when I say that life as a Christian is much the same way.

A lone Christian can make some impact on the world for Christ. Some would argue that it is in one-on-one contact and close relationships with non-believers that a Christian is able to share the Gospel most effectively, and they wouldn’t be wrong. But even so, all Christians need to have regular contact with other believers, lest they cease to be the hunters and become the hunted. Fortunately, there is a place where individual believers can go to recharge their batteries on a regular basis.

Yes, it’s the church.

Even the strongest and surest individuals need a support system. Indeed, as stated so succinctly by author John Donne, “No man is an island.” Living and working in isolation is difficult for social beings, whether they be wolves or humans. The work is tiresome, the resources scarce, and the rewards limited. But as part of a group (or pack), the Christian can find the strength and support to accomplish far greater things than the loner.

Photo by Neil Carey (license CC BY-SA 2.0)
An excellent picture of the power of a unified group of individuals comes from Paul’s reference to faith as a shield in Ephesians 6:16. While the Roman scutum was a formidable bit of equipment for the individual soldier, the collective strength of these shields when used in unison by an entire unit became the stuff of legend.

When outnumbered or facing a rain of arrows from distant archers, Roman legionnaires could unite in a special defensive formation known as the testudo, or tortoise formation. Soldiers along the perimeter of the formation would hold their shields upright, side-by-side, while those inside the formation would lift their shields horizontally above their heads, overlapping them to form a virtually impenetrable shell encasing the entire unit. The formation could maintain its position nearly indefinitely, and it could even move and advance into enemy lines while providing superior protection to the soldiers beneath the canopy of overlapping shields.
 
The testudo formation illustrates the power of faith within the collective entity of the church, as well as being an excellent picture of the church’s proper function in the life of an individual member.

One notable factor about the testudo formation is that each individual shield is the same as all the others. This does not mean that individual Christians should all be the same, but it does illustrate the importance of sharing a common faith. A church cannot make a positive impact on the community around it if the individual members aren’t on the same page. Concerning faith, this reveals the importance of clear and consistent teaching within the church.

One of the primary functions of the church is to instruct believers in the faith. Here, faith refers to the specific beliefs (doctrines) of the church. It is extremely important for any organization to share a cohesive vision amongst the individuals who belong to it, and this is of course true of the church as well. Churches generally teach the details of the faith via both small groups (think Sunday school) or in mass (via sermons).

Another of the primary functions of the church is to build up believers during our time together so that we are strong enough to face the challenges of daily life while we are apart.  A single soldier can quickly become tired. Within the Roman tortoise formation, the individual legionnaires were able to expend less energy and recover their focus. The same can be said of the church. While we go about our daily lives, the world presents us with certain challenges. Temptations to sin, opportunities to witness, and attacks on our faith all drain our energy, but the local church should be our place of rest, recovery, and renewal.

One of my favorite passages in the Bible comes from Paul’s instruction to the church to “encourage one another, and build each other up,” in 1 Thessalonians 5:11. Morale within any organization is vital. If members are confident of success, then success generally follows. Low morale tends to lead to disorganization, mistakes, and potentially, failure. It is therefore of vital importance for the local church to comfort members who are hurting, help members who are struggling, and encourage members who are on the verge of giving up.

As individuals, the Shield of Faith can do a lot. Covering the gaps in one’s own Breastplate of Righteousness is a good place to begin. After all, it is faith in God’s forgiveness that gives us reassurance that our sins will be blotted out in eternity. Additionally, it is by faith which we believe that God works all things together for our good. Faith reassures us that even though there is pain tonight, joy will come in the morning. How much more so for all of these situations when believers come together to share encouragement, accountability, and forgiveness! So many shields, so much faith, so much encouragement!

And finally, the marching testudo is a wonderful symbol of a church on the move. Just as a unit of soldiers in the tortoise formation had a huge tactical advantage over their adversaries, so too a group of faithful Christians gains great power in the reality of daily spiritual warfare! The testudo made Roman legions more effective at reaching their objectives, just as our collective faith spurs us forward in reaching the world for Christ.

So how can a local church put on the testudo of faith? Aside from supporting, teaching, and encouraging individual members as mentioned above, there are numerous ways that a local church can carry our collective faith out into our communities.

Open or support a food bank or soup kitchen.
Host or support a women & children’s shelter.
Run, sponsor, or support a halfway house.
And much, much more.

In the words of Bigweld from the 2005 film Robots, “See a need, fill a need!”

As we have seen, the Shield of Faith has applications for both individuals and the church as a collective. If ever you find yourself feeling isolated and overwhelmed, don’t be afraid to contact another church member for help, comfort, and reassurance. Be available at all times to be the one who provides such aid. Stop being a loner! Share your burdens and invoke the strength of the pack!

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