People from my generation will remember the much overused phrase, “New and improved!” (always with the exclamation point) that dominated television advertising. Madison Avenue successfully persuaded Americans that anything new necessarily improved on older products or methods. This shrewd marketing tactic may be used more subtly these days, but people continue to prefer new things to old. Sadly, many postmodern churches buy into that mentality.
Proverbs 22:28 lays out an interesting principle:
Do not move the ancient landmark
that your fathers have set. (ESV)
When I read that verse last year, I wondered if it could apply to the current practice of updating doctrine that characterizes the Church Growth Movement and other groups that adjust Scripture so that it complies with 21st Century culture. So, not wanting to interpret this verse through the grid of my experience with churches that embraced various techniques to increase the sizes of their congregations, I turned to some of my commentaries.
The Believer’s Bible Commentary addressed the verse by explaining its original (and literal) meaning, followed by its spiritual application for Christians:
22:28 The ancient landmark was a series of stones which indicated the boundaries of a person’s property. Dishonest people often moved them during the night to increase the size of their farm at their neighbor’s expense.
Spiritually, the ancient landmarks would be “the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The fundamental doctrines of Christianity should not be tampered with.
John Gill’s Commentary agreed, though with the wordiness and flourishes that I’ve come to expect from Gill.
Remove not the ancient landmark which thy fathers have set. Or, “the ancient border” or “boundary” (n); by which lands, estates, and inheritances, were marked, bounded, and distinguished; set by ancestors in agreement with their neighbours; which to remove was contrary to a law, and a curse is denounced upon those that did it, Deu_19:14; and was always reckoned a very heinous crime in early times; See Gill on Job_24:2. This was so sacred a thing among the Romans, that they had a deity which presided over those bounds, and had its name from them. Some apply this, in a political sense, to laws of long standing, and customs of long prescription; and others interpret it, in a theological sense, of doctrines and practices settled by the fathers of the church; which, if understood of Christ and his apostles only, will be allowed; but if of the ancient fathers of the church that followed them, it should not be received; since they were but fallible men, and guilty of many errors and mistakes, both in doctrine and practice.
Adam Clarke, however, offered the strongest support for applying this verse to the preservation of tried-and-true doctrine. His entry provided me with assurance that I had indeed made an appropriate connection.
Remove not the ancient landmark – Do not take the advantage, in ploughing or breaking up a field contiguous to that of thy neighbor, to set the dividing stones farther into his field that thou mayest enlarge thy own. Take not what is not thy own in any case. Let all ancient divisions, and the usages connected with them, be held sacred. Bring in no new dogmas, nor rites, nor ceremonies, into religion, or the worship of God, that are not clearly laid down in the sacred writings. “Stand in the way; and see, and ask for the old paths, which is the good way, and walk therein; and ye shall find rest for your souls;” Jer_6:16. But if any Church have lost sight of the genuine doctrines of the Gospel, calling them back to these is not removing the ancient landmarks, as some have falsely asserted. God gave a law against removing the ancient landmarks, by which the inheritances of tribes and families were distinguished. See Deu_19:14, from which these words of Solomon appear to be taken.
Progressive evangelical churches almost boast in their rejection of old ways, thinking that keeping pace with current cultural norms opens the door to effective evangelism. I can remember sitting through a series of sermons obviously intended to make us comfortable with the changes that leadership desired to implement. Predictably, the pastor used Scripture as a springboard for the “change is good” agenda rather that expositing it in its own context.
Admittedly, many of the churches that promote “new and improved” approaches to “doing church” manage to fill their auditoriums with young double-income families, but do they produce regenerate believers who understand sound doctrine that affects their every day lives? I don’t believe so. While some portion of their church bodies are legitimately saved, they often attract people who are doctrinally shallow and who make both moral and theological compromises.
Sometimes churches need to make changes, but those changes must draw people back to the Bible instead of forward to updated experiences. The Lord has already provided His plan for how churches should operate, and He doesn’t need our embellishments. Only by respecting ancient doctrinal landmarks can we give the next generation the true Gospel.