Being an armchair philologist, words fascinate me. I am often allured by the suggestive hints from other cognate languages. “Hmm. Could this word be related to that? And if so, how?” Soon I’m at the dictionary, probing unknown etymologies and discovering family relationships. New shades of significance of even the most familiar of words give me an inward satisfaction.
But I really sit up and take notice when they are words that tap into domains of personal interest. So after several years of nursing a respect for Reformed parochial mission theory a la Thomas Chalmers, I’ve become really interested in expanding my grasp of related terminology and its significance.
One of the new words under personal review is ward. I owe this one to Dr. Francis Wayland (1796-1865), the fourth President of Brown University and a strong American admirer of Thomas Chalmers. In his biographical tribute to the great Scotsman, he mentions the word to explain Chalmers’ advocacy of the parish as a unit of evangelism. “So far as I understand, the city of Glasgow is divided into parishes, as our cities are divided into wards” (p. 88). Really, it was just an incidental statement in a larger explanation. But this attempt to translate a somewhat foreign state of affairs for an American audience made me pause. “Now if the British parish is analogous to the American ward (or district, precinct, borough), then what is its precise meaning? And how could it be appropriated ecclesiastically?”
Well, the word as a noun basically means “the act or condition of guarding” or “being in a state of custody.” Germanic in origin, the word developed through Old and Middle English to the current ward and related variants. In the same family are beware, wary, guard, and warden.
The following seems to be central to its essence. The ward is an authoritatively fixed responsibility assigned to some person or persons to regard, protect, and otherwise care for certain ones under their charge. Usually a ward is not alone, but several wards are distributed throughout a general area, combining for the overall protection and provision of a larger body. So, then, the ward is an organizational expedient for a broad charge. In light of all this, we get a clearer insight into the significance both of city and hospital wards.
Turning to the ecclesiastical application, the Lord Jesus Christ has been invested with “all authority in heaven and on earth.” He, however, chooses to send the Twelve throughout the nations with the keys of the kingdom. Whatever they “bind on earth shall be bound in heaven,” while “whatever they loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” He that hears them hears the Son, and whoever hears Him hears the Father.
The entirety of the nations are to be taught, baptized, and consequently further taught “in all things whatsoever [Jesus has] commanded them.” The nations, then, are under the Church’s custody. No doubt “the heathen rage” and attempt to throw off these “bands” and “cords.” Yet, none of their mad fury alters in the slightest the dominion of God’s Christ or the authority entrusted to the Church as steward. The world is Christ’s ward.
Yet the Church under Christ can only fulfill its charge by (in the words of Thomas Chalmers) an intelligent economy. Only by division can the whole be conquered. So the Church, seeing herself as Christ’s city steward or the spiritual hospital’s administrator, divides and subdivides its sacred charge. We may call these units any number things. But given the ancient and contemporary significance of the ward, this offers itself as a great word for the Church’s missionary vocabulary. And for that matter, it ought to be more than idea – but an abiding mandate. The Church ought not so much to create wards as to realize and begin to take charge of them!
Perhaps these ideas seem Roman Catholic. I would contend, however, that the Reformation Church – wearing the mantle of the true catholicism – affirmed them wholeheartedly. It threw out the vain traditions of men, but not this theology of the Church’s spiritual stewardship over the nations. And that is why the Reformation Churches kept establishments and the parochial system. They were viewed as wise expedients to fulfill its sacred responsibility.
Nevermind the blight of secularism, with its contempt of all churchly restraints. Let us not be browbeaten by the re-paganizing of the West. It remains, as well as the East – and for that matter, the North and South too! – the territory of the Lord Christ. It is His domain, as the rightful Heir of all things. That means the nations are His, the states are His, the cities are His – with all its wards. Let the Church assume its responsibility over them. And in so doing, it will one day receive that cheering commendation, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”