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An Anthill on Which to Die: What a Colony of Insects Could Teach Us About the Church

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A Princeton biologist has found Jesus in an anthill. No, he didn’t discover a Last Supper scene made of bread crumbs. And, no, he wasn’t the victim of a new coercive form of evangelism. In fact, I don’t know if he’s ever thought about Jesus at all. But he’s found a laboratory-based, grant-funded way to say something quite old: “Go to the ant, O sluggard; consider her ways and be wise” (Prov 6:5).

According to the International Herald Tribune, Princeton University mathematical biologist Iain Couzin is constructing a computer model to detail how army ants are able to move from colony to colony without “a mad, disorganized scramble.” Couzin expresses awe that these tiny, relatively simple, organisms can build intricate highways and food-delivery systems without ever experiencing gridlock. Humans can learn a thing or two here, he suggests.

Now, at first glance, nothing seems further from the spiritual life of most Christians or from the mission of most churches than an Ivy League entomology study. But, what if our listening to this researcher will astound us even further about the wisdom of our Christ in the same way the Hubble telescope photographs cause us to gasp anew at the old truth that the heavens declare the glory of God?

Most Christians are familiar with Solomon’s admonition to look to the ant (Prov 6:6-11). Our children sing songs about it. Our leadership manuals teach us to plan for retirement based on it. Most of us, however, tend to see this as helpful, homespun advice about good hard work. It makes sense to us, but it hits us with all the spiritual gravity of “Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and wealthy and wise.” But there’s much more here.

Solomon tells us that there is wisdom to be gained from looking at a mound of ants. And, for Solomon, as for Jesus and his apostles, wisdom isn’t data. Wisdom is a way one walks, a voice one hears, a Person one knows. The way the Proverbs tell us about, the structure of the universe, the Scripture tells us is a Logos, through whom God made everything that was made. Jesus of Nazareth is, Paul tells us, “the wisdom of God and the power of God” (1 Cor 1:24).

This is why, as I’ve argued elsewhere, laziness, right along with discord, gluttony, gossip, lack of self-control and every other form of folly mentioned in Scripture is not just a character flaw. Our foolishness tells us whether or not we are walking in wisdom. Since we know the Wisdom of which Solomon spoke (Matt 12:42), our laziness or ineffectiveness or lack of foresight tells us much about how we are following Christ.

The ants show us a design God has placed in the structure of the cosmos, a grain we’ll either work with or against, as we follow Jesus in assuming our stewardship of our callings in the world. Solomon’s counsel to look to the ant is itself an indictment of a humanity in rebellion against its Creator. After all, God commanded Adam and Eve in the beginning to “work and keep” the Garden, and to exercise dominion over “every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen 1:26).

Now, a fallen humanity, turned away from their Creator, must be told to learn from the dominion exercised by one of the tiniest of all “creeping things”: the ant. Solomon points to the foresight and effectiveness of the ant in storing food for winter (Prov 6:8). He admires the fact that the ant labors without coercion, or even direction from any chief officer or ruler (Prov 6:7).

Because we are future kings and queens of the universe in Christ, the Scripture has much to say about how we work in this time between the times. This is why so much of the Scripture is spent counseling Christians against idleness or insubordination. But, in this present age, the reign of Christ is seen in the church (Eph 1:20-22), a rule that is seen in His working through the Holy Spirit through gifts for the purpose of upbuilding the Kingdom community (Eph 4:1-16).

And that’s where the ant research gets really interesting.

Couzin argues that the secret of ant effectiveness is the use of swarms. The insects are able, he says, to travel through any type of terrain without problem because they use their living bodies as bridges. “They build them up if they’re required, and they dissolve if they’re not being used,” he concludes. But how do millions of ants know how to do this, without running all over each other?

While Couzin hasn’t completely solved this one, he argues that chemical markers set forth “rules” that the ants follow, rules that wouldn’t make sense for any individual ant, only for the swarm as a whole. “These rules allow thousands of relatively simple animals to form a collective brain able to make decisions and move as if they were a single organism,” the Herald Tribune reports.

I stopped in mid-sentence when I read that line, and felt the hair on my arms stand on end.

Thousands of years ago, Solomon told us to look to the ants and be wise. It wasn’t just, as we often suppose, that the ants work hard. It was that they are able to work effectively despite the very mystery this study seeks to unravel: they have no chief officer or ruler. The way they’re able to do it, this study tells us, is through one body with many members, all keeping in step with a common instinct. In so doing, they become, though legion, one organism with a collective mind.

Paul warned the church at Corinth that the mission of the congregation was jeopardized by a wisdom of this world that was, in fact, folly. The foolishness was a discord in the church, over leadership and spiritual gifts, that threatened to signal that Christ himself was divided (1 Cor 10-13). Paul, like Solomon points them to a hidden wisdom that is found not in the philosophers’ writings but in the “low and despised” things of the universe (1 Cor 1:28).

The congregation shouldn’t splinter apart into quarreling because, he tells us, “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor 2:16). There shouldn’t be rivalry or jockeying for position because “you are the body of Christ and individually members in it,” all various parts led by a central nervous system with a name, a birth date, and a manger he previously called home.

I wonder how often our ineffectiveness at our mission as congregations has less to do with a commitment to “excellence,” and more to do with a refusal to see ourselves first ecclesially and only second personally. Perhaps our churches are so immature precisely because we see ourselves first in terms of our personal ambitions, our personal careers, our personal lives.

I wonder how much of the deadness and silliness in our churches has less to do with a laziness that refuses to toss aside individual glory for the unity of the church, a laziness that refuses to set aside one’s preferences to discern the mind of Christ. I wonder if we really get that we are all individually tiny components of a vast, multinational organism, one that spans the globe and the centuries?

Maybe the first step to wisdom is to recognize that the church itself, even with all of our flaws and foibles and fallibilities, reveals the “manifold wisdom of God” (Eph 3:10), a wisdom so awesome that our Maker designed an entire universe embedded with likenesses of it?

Yes, our highways are gridlocked, but our churches are often more so. Maybe what we need isn’t to sit through one more corporate leadership seminar. Maybe what we need is to stop the Wednesday business meeting and walk outside to turn over an anthill.

And maybe, just maybe, if we have eyes to see, we’ll find Jesus there.

You are part of a family and family is difficult because family – every family – is an echo of the gospel.

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About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the moral and public policy agency 
of the nation’s largest Protestant denomination.

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