The Trellis And The Vine

While at my parents home this summer I snapped this picture on a whim, then stuffed it in “digital memory” … meaning I forgot it. Today I found it, and meditate upon the trellis and vine.

First, the vine. When our Savior instructs us about union and communion with himself, he instructs us in this way: “I am the vine, you are the branches” (John 15:5a). Unfortunately, this verse and its context suffers the death of the  Christian cliche’. Because many have no actual experiences with vineyards, grapes, or even farming in general, the rich understanding of this Biblical passage and its overarching analogy can be lost on our minds. We’ve never fretted as our vine mysteriously wilted, threatening our economic livelihood. We have never groaned when the weight of the vine upon itself caused the vine to snap in half, causing all the fruit higher up to literally “wither on the vine.”

No, this world of vineyards is distant to us, and we would do well to enter the world of grape growers. The Scriptures are packed with spiritual fruit-growing messages for those able to decode the analogies.

The verbage of vines and vineyards is thick in the Old Testament. Noah is the first vinedresser. The chief cupbearer with Joseph dreamed about vines, as they provided his livelihood. The Psalter presents Israel as a vine (80:8, 14), an endearing reference employed by God himself to pronounce blessing on the God-fearing man: “your wife will be like a fruitful vine, within your house” (128:3). This same affectionate — even erotic — language is employed in the Song of Solomon. The prophets also utilize produce language  in their sober reasonings with the rebellious nation of Israel (see Isaiah 5, Jer. 5:9-18, 8:13, Ezekiel 17 and 19:10-14).

In the New Testament, our Savior brings forth his own theological framework when he employs the language of the vine. He teaches us about himself, the One he calls “my Father,” and about the spiritual growth potential for those who would “abide” in his teachings. John 15 contains bountiful insight for those willing to meditate carefully on its riches. Here the awesome relationship between the eternal Father and the eternal Son is explicated (15:1), then the doctrine of the mystical union between Christ and all true believers is laid forth (15:5).

So look again at the picture, for the purpose of this essay is to reflect particularly on the relation of the trellis and the vine. The vine (fairly small in this picture) is lush, green, alive, and growing. And the trellis stands strong, rooted solidly under the vine. This picture draws into focus the interesting connection — and distinction — between John 15:10 and John 15:11.

The trellis is not supposed to be alive. It is not supposed to flex, or sway, or even to “bear fruit.” Its job is to stay rigid, to carry the weight of a living, fruit-laden vine. In the same way the commandments of Christ (v 10) are solid and rigid, sovereign decrees that are not negotiable or debateable. I am always struck when the introduction to the RPCNA Directory For Church Government makes reference to the categories of “fundamental law” and “the law and order of the church.” I fear that in our day a proper focus upon discipleship can diminish attentiveness to the command of the Apostle that: “all things should be done decently and in order” (1 Corinthians 14:40).

Now don’t get me wrong. I am passionate for discipleship! Jesus himself clarifies what his “commandment” is in verse 12. He calls us to love one another, to lay down our lives for one another, to consider ourselves his friends. And yet, notice that this verse begins with the words, “this is my commandment.” Here Jesus is displaying his sovereign, regal authority, given to him by the Father. He is sounding clearly the note of Lordship, of authority. And his servants are bound to keep all his commandments (1 John 2:3-4; 3:22; 5:3). He entrusted the “keys of the Kingdom” (Matthew 16:19, Is. 22:22) to his Apostles, and we confess in the present that “to these [Church] officers [i.e. church Elders], the keys of the kingdom are committed: by  virtue whereof, they have power respectively to retain and remit sins; to shut that kingdom against the impenitent, both by the Word and censures; and to open it unto penitent sinners, by the ministry of the Gospel…” (Westminster Confession 30.2).

This is the “trellis” of the church. Here we see plainly the importance of biblical church polity (which is presbyterian). Here we are faced with the Lordship of Christ as it is expressed finally and permanently in Scripture. Here we see that shepherds are more than “coaches” and that at all times serious and sober church discipline must be faithfully exercised. For disobedience to the commandments of the Royal Sovereign  is nothing less than rebellion against his person.

But, thankfully, the trellis is not an end in itself. Jesus does not say that his Father is glorified by kicking people out of his church. Rather in verse 8: “by this is my Father glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples.” Here we see Jesus envisioning something else, something that does not involve mere duty. Here we turn to our second key verse in John 15:11, where Jesus says, “These things [including  the commandments] I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.”

Now we turn our attention to that which is pulsing with life and planted in the soil to bear fruit. Church government does not exist as an end in itself. Rather, it exists to support the vital, growing fruit of Christ indwelling his people. The vinedresser-vine-branch-fruit connection laid forth in John 15 flows out into a pulsing, living Body where Christ is leading his people in worship, speaking to them by his Word, and animating his people’s faith in practical, creative, and productive service.

It was the practical outworking of this trellis-vine distinction that motivated Colin Marshall and Tony Payne to write their excellent book The Trellis And The Vine: The Ministry Mind-Shift That Changes Everything. My purpose is not to review this book, but simply to connect this resource to the theme we have developed. These authors labor to apply such reflections practically when they observe:

“The image of the trellis and the vine raises all the fundamental questions of Christian ministry: what is the vine for? How does the vine grow? How does the vine relate to my church? What is vine work and what is trellis work. and how can we tell the difference? What part do different people play in growing the vine? How can we get more people involved in vine work? What is the right relationship between the trellis and the vine?” (pg. 14).

They describe the purpose in this way: “We will be arguing that structures don’t grow ministry any more than trellises grow vines, and that most churches need to make a conscious shift — away from erecting and maintaining structures, and towards growing people who are disciple-making disciples of Christ” (pg. 17). Marshall and Payne then list 11 examples of the vine and trellis “ministry mind-shift” they envision:

1. From running programs to building people

2. From running events to training people

3. From using people to growing people

4. From filling gaps to training new workers

5. From solving problems to helping people make progress

6. From clinging to ordained ministry to developing team leadership

7. From focusing on church polity to forging ministry partnerships

8. From relying on training institutions to establishing local training

9. From focusing on immediate pressures to aiming for long-term expansion

10. From engaging in management to engaging in ministry

11. From seeking church growth to desiring gospel growth

This so-called “ministry mind shift” will look very different in different contexts. Thankfully, the ministry of the  Living Word (Heb. 4:12) and the Spirit of Life (Rom 8:2; 2 Cor. 3:6) are not contained in any one human institution, but all true churches do and ought to confess they are “a true branch of the visible church”  (see RP Testimony 28.2) that the Savior so forcefully laid claim to in Matthew 16:18.

Let us praise the Lord of Heaven and Earth that he did not leave us to perish in a state of sin and misery. We ought to give thanks every day that, in accordance with the will of his Father, the Son of God became a man. It truly is in the incarnation of the Christ that we see the authority of our God and the love of our God brought together. It is in his patient, Scripture-saturated ministry to real people with real problems that we gain a paradigm for ministry week by week in his visible church.

Let us return again and again to ponder this one who described himself as “the True Vine.” Let us follow his lead as he turns our gaze to “my Father [who] is the vinedresser,” the One Jesus reverently calls “the only true God” (John 17:3). Then let us receive the message of divine, monergistic grace that alone enables us to pulse with life and bear fruit for the kingdom. Christ the Calvinist impresses this message in unquivocal terms: “apart from me you can do nothing.” Instead, each branch ought to draw hungrily from the Vine, who is himself being diligently cared for my the Sovereign God. We ought to pray diligently for the health and growth of the branches, and root the trellis deeply so it can play its vital, God-ordained function.

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