Many years ago I visited a store that featured a display of freshwater planted aquariums, and I immediately became enamored with them. I was entranced by the lushness of the plants that can grow underwater and by the symbiotic relationship of the aquatic flora and fauna. I had to have one. Eventually, I found a good-sized used tank that was reasonably priced. I installed all the hardware, put down the substrate, filled it with properly-treated water, and added the first plants and fish. It took some time, but soon enough the plants began to grow and to spread. In a matter of weeks, the aquarium was nothing short of stunning.
But it didn’t take me long to realize that the same conditions that cause the plants to thrive also cause algae to thrive. The same water temperatures, pH levels, and lights that cause the plants to grow also cause algae and other unwanted organisms to grow. And from that moment forward, I was engaged in a never-ending battle to foster the former and eradicate the latter. It was a battle I eventually became weary of fighting and after a couple of years I emptied the aquarium, sold it off, and found a new hobby.
I recently found myself pondering that aquarium and the battle between good growth and bad growth. I was considering the local church as the place where Christians are meant to grow. The church is the “aquarium” in which every good Christian quality can grow and thrive. It is in the church that we learn to embrace and display the heavenly virtues of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It is in the local church that we experience the kind of contagious zeal that causes us to imitate the best qualities we see in others (and that causes others to imitate the best qualities they see in us). All of this and so much more develops and increases in God’s church.
All of this develops and increases in God’s church because of the church’s relational and communal nature. We live life together, we bare our hearts, souls, and lives, we see one another at our best and worst, and in so many ways become like one another. That’s just how God intends it.
And yet the same context that can promote such wonderful virtues can also foster such terrible vices. Because we live out our Christian faith in such proximity to one another and because we are natural imitators, we are likely to imitate poor qualities as well as good ones. So if love can spread in the local church, so can suspicion. If faithfulness can spread in the local church, so can distrust. If zeal, then also apathy, if submission then also rebellion.
What grows in an aquarium? Plants and weeds, because the conditions that foster one fosters the other. What grows in the local church? Virtues and vices, because much of the context that fosters one can as easily foster the opposite. The challenge, then, is clear, and it is a challenge that goes to each one of us: To bless the church by putting on all those precious Christian graces and to bless the church by putting off all those unChristian vices. It’s in this way that we will serve the church, guard the church, and keep it pure.