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The Gospel of Transformation

Distinguishing the Discipleship & Ecclesiology Integral to Salvation 

Section II  The Gospel’s Relational Outcome of Wholeness


Chapter 11         Maturing in Difference and Likeness




In Reverse Likeness

The Difference the Makes the Difference

Maturing in the Discipleship Distinguishing the Church

The Likeness that Makes the Difference


Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

Ch 11

Ch 12

Printable pdf of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index





For building up the body of Christ, until all of us come…to maturity

to the measure of the fullness of Christ…put away your former way of life,

your old self…and to be made new in the innermost of your minds,

and to determine yourselves with the new self,

created according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

Ephesians 4:12-13,22-24




            How our persons, relationships and churches unfold at this stage remains an open question, which requires our ongoing attention. Regardless of any earlier clarification and correction to our discipleship and ecclesiology, we cannot make new assumptions about their practice because they are always subjected to reductionism—whose workings should never be underestimated. For example, our focus can shift to what’s ahead and raise our concern for the future, perhaps becoming occupied with it. This common concern seems reasonable enough not to require our further attention. Yet, what easily underlies this concern could be the subtle workings of self-determination, which would counter Jesus’ second functional key for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 6:33-34, discussed in chap. 9). Unless the subtle reduction of our ontology and function that composes self-determination is understood and ongoingly addressed, how our persons, relationships and churches unfold easily become subject to reductionism’s influence and shaping. And the relational outcome will not be whole, much less mature.

            As we consider the vital matter of maturing in our persons, relationships and churches, Paul refocuses our attention and sets the stage for what unfolds. Within the reductionism-wholeness issue is the tension between the already and the not yet, both of which Paul engaged in his relational discourse with the church at Philippi in what is likely one of his last prison letters. Paul raised some interrelated conditional (or factually implied) statements about their experiential truth of relationship with God in the present (Phil 2:1). They evoke reflection on the existence of the following: encouragement being in relationship with Christ, intimately experiencing his family love, having reciprocal relational involvement ongoingly together with the Spirit, and being affected in one’s persons from inner out. From Paul’s interpretive lens (phroneo), if these exist (or since they exist), then this defines their new mindset and interpretive lens (phroneo in likeness, 2:2,5) to determine their reciprocal involvement in relationships together, first based on their experiential truth of the whole of God and thereby in relational likeness to this whole of God (2:2-4). This new phroneo is not the result of human effort but emerges from a transformed phronema constituted by the experiential reality of relationship together with the whole of God, notably with the Spirt (Rom 8:5-6).

The dynamic presence and involvement of the whole person of the Spirit functions while inseparably on an eschatological trajectory. Yet for Paul, this does not and must not take away from the primary focus on the Spirit’s presence and involvement for the present, just as Paul addressed the Thessalonians’ eschatological anxiety with the relational imperative not to quench the Spirit’s present relational involvement (1 Thes 5:19). The Spirit’s present concern and function is relational involvement for constituting whole ontology and function, for making functional the primacy of wholeness together, and for the embodying of the whole of God’s new creation family in whole relationship together as the church, the pleroma of Christ—which is why the person of the Spirit is deeply affected, grieving over any reductionism in reciprocal relational involvement together. With this new interpretive lens functioning in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit, the person perceives oneself whole-ly from the inner out and others in the same way, and is involved in relationships together on this basis (involving the first two inescapable issues), which is congruent with their experience of relational involvement from God and in likeness of how God engages relationships.

            The agape relational involvement Paul defines is not about sacrificial love but family love, which submits one’s whole person from inner out to one another in equalized and intimate relationships signifying whole relationship together—in likeness of how the whole of God functions together and is relationally involved with us. Paul defines conclusively that in the midst of reductionism, this is the church order in which “the wholeness of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your persons from inner out in Christ from reductionism” (Phil 4:7) and by which “the God of wholeness will be relationally involved with you” (4:9).

            The likeness that Paul points to also includes a significant difference, both of which set the stage for maturity in our persons, relationships and churches to unfold. Yet, like Paul, the workings of reductionism should never be lost in our attention; and our sensitivity to the qualitative and awareness of the relational are always contingent on our current interpretive framework and lens.



In Reverse Likeness

            Maturity is an elusive quality when measured in quantitative terms. Specifically, when maturity is defined by the level of what we do over being established in who, what and how we are as person (the significance of righteousness in Eph 4:24), maturity becomes a variable measure that is always subject to comparison with others. Who is mature on this basis becomes relative both to self-assessment and the eye of the beholder (cf. to beauty). In social terms in the United States, for example, recent generations are perceived as less mature than previous generations at the same age, and taking longer to mature. Yet, ontological simulation of maturity in previous generations may not be significantly different than the virtual maturity cultivated in the tech-savvy generations of today. Maturity is an elusive quality indeed, especially among Christians of whatever generation.

            By the time of Jesus’ ascension, can we say that Peter was mature? Their interaction in John 21 reveals in Peter’s discipleship that he still needed significant growth in “Follow me” (Jn 21:22). Maturity in discipleship foremost involves knowing the person Jesus (as Jesus lamented, Jn 14:9)—over merely knowing his teachings and example—by being vulnerably involved with him on his intrusive relational path (“where I am, there will my followers be involved together with me” (Jn 12:26). Therefore, maturity in discipleship requires the depth of relationship directly with Jesus that Mary engaged in her discipleship (discussed later), not indirectly in the amount of service and sacrifice made in his name (cf. Mt 7:22-23). Any other measure of maturity puts us on a contrary path in our discipleship, and it engages in a reverse dynamic to what God distinguished as most important in the primacy of relationship together over any secondary area we can feel proud of accomplishing or possessing (Jer 9:23-24).

            Likewise, maturity for the church is not measured by the purity of its doctrine and uncompromising dedication to the church (cf. the church at Ephesus, Rev 2:2-4), nor measured by the quantity of its ministry and earned reputation (cf. the church at Sardis, Rev 3:1-2), and by its increasing service in the world (cf. the church at Thyatira, Rev 2:19-20). The simulations and illusions of these churches led them to think that they were mature churches, doing what the church should and doing it consistently, rigorously and increasingly. How do you measure church maturity today? Jesus, however, did not share their perception (and perhaps ours) and exposed such churches in the existing reality of their lack of maturity: the Thyatira church in not being distinguished in the world, the church in Sardis for not being complete, whole in their practice and thus in their ontology and function, and the Ephesian church in not being vulnerably involved in the primacy of relationship together, which would make church practice complete and function in the world distinguished. These were churches engaged in a reverse dynamic, which does not have the relational outcome of maturing in wholeness.

            Engaging in a reverse dynamic by persons and churches is not the exception but the prevailing mode, both in the past and the present—which a focus on the future makes convenient to ignore. In the primordial garden, it was established that by self-determination (“If you…”) human persons “will be like God” (Gen 3:5). On the one hand, this set in motion the self-autonomy of human persons not only to be like God but also to either displace God’s position and be God’s equal, or make God unnecessary (the unspoken goal of much scientific enterprise). On the other hand, human persons in self-determination emerged to shape their own person and relationships, that is, their ontology and function to be like God. Rather than God creating persons and relationships in his image and likeness, humans would shape their person and relationship to be like God in a reverse dynamic. What resulted and reverberates through human history is the following: Persons and relationships in reverse likeness not only emerged in self-determination but such efforts inevitably required self-justification—“the woman saw that…and they knew that…and they acted…for themselves” (Gen 3:6-7), and thus “the woman you gave to be with me, she gave me…” (3:12). From then on, whether in self-determination and/or with self-justification, persons and relationships were composed in reverse likeness of God.

            Paul intrusively addressed this reverse dynamic in the church that was fragmented by it (1 Cor 4:6-7; 2 Cor 10:12, cf. Jn 3:3,7); and he fought for the church’s maturing in wholeness in likeness of God. Yet, even among Jesus’ followers and in churches today, persons and relationships are still composed in reverse likeness. We need to double-check with the Spirit our interpretive framework and lens, because the likeness that Paul illuminates also includes the significant difference that is crucial to understand for maturing in our persons, relationships and churches.



The Difference that Makes the Difference

            To understand the difference that makes the difference, we need to build on our discussion from the last chapter on holy communion. This difference is composed by the true holiness that is in likeness of the whole and holy God, which Paul made conclusive for our maturity (Eph 4:13,24).

            When Paul illuminated theological clarity for the gospel of God’s relational whole without human distinctions, he integrated Israel’s relational position with the Gentiles’ relational position in God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition (Rom 11:11-24). God’s salvific action was initiated through Israel on the collective level (“firstfruits,” v.16) and now extends to Gentiles—the relational dynamic also involving Jesus into Paul. The deeply interrelated relational position of Jews and of Gentiles is in complex interaction to render them without distinction in their relational condition, which signifies undeniably the whole of God’s thematic response of grace. What Paul makes definitive is that in terms of each other’s relational position, one is not the cause of the other’s; neither is one at the exclusion of the other, nor marginalizes or is better than the other. These theological dynamics emerge in the relational context and process of God’s relational involvement of grace, the relational source and relational outcome of which Paul illuminated conclusively as holy: “if the root is holy, then the branches also are holy” (v.16). This is no mere theological proposition or doctrinal truth Paul makes for the church’s heritage and pronouncement. This ontological likeness unfolds and matures in functional likeness, which together integrally compose church ontology and function.

            There is a dynamic functional interaction illuminated by Paul that as a whole both deconstructs human-shaped distinctions and differences in God’s relational whole, and constitutes also the difference distinguishing God’s relational whole. Paul identifies this dynamic for the church as the functional significance of “holy” (Col 1:22; Eph 2:21; Rom 12:1; 2 Tim 2:21). The ontological identity of the church is rooted in the relational source of who the church is and whose the church is (cf. Joshua’s confusion about Israel’s identity, Josh 7:10-13). This integrated identity emerges with the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function, whose relational outcome to be whole is also distinguished by its relational source clearly as holy. In Paul’s completeness theology, the embodied church alive in wholeness with the new relational order is functionally significant only when distinguished as holy in likeness of the whole and holy God. The dynamic of being holy engages a reciprocal process of deep relational involvement in the whole of God’s relational context and process (2 Cor 6:17-18)—which involves the ongoing process of reciprocating contextualization and triangulation with the Spirit. It is unattainable for the church to be distinguished whole from inner out apart from this ongoing reciprocal involvement, as Paul prayed for the church in transformed ecclesiology (Eph 1:17-23; 3:14-19) and as Jesus prayed for his whole and holy family (Jn 17:17-23).

            Forming and maintaining clearly distinguished church identity is not the outcome of identity markers from outer-in theological propositions but from inner-out theological function, not with possessing doctrinal truth but with the experiential truth of the whole gospel, and thus not with the limited significance of what the church is saved from but with the full significance of what it also is saved to. What distinguishes the church’s identity, therefore, is not what it has and/or does from outer in but only its wholeness from inner out—its imperative determinant (brabeuo, Col 3:15). Yet, wholeness from inner out must be further distinguished uniquely (and likely impractically) from the competing source of outer in. This contrast emerges when the church’s whole ontology and function is distinguished solely in the qualitative image and relational likeness (outcome for the church) of the whole and holy God (the church’s relational source).

            The church’s relational outcome in wholeness matures only with whole persons agape-relationally involved vulnerably in whole relationships together, which are both equalized and intimate. This relational outcome is defined and determined by the church’s relational source, which Paul illuminated with the church’s “call to be holy” (1 Cor 1:2; 2 Tim 1:9; Eph 1:4). The term for holy (hagios; cf. sanctify, hagiazo) means to be separated from ordinary or common usage and devoted to God; this is the functional significance that Paul makes a contingency for the church to be whole in likeness of its relational source. Paul’s call (echoing Jesus’ prayer) signifies ‘already’ for the church to be different from the surrounding context, that is, clearly distinguished from the sin of reductionism in human contextualization (Rom 11:16; 12:1-2; Eph 5:3; Col 1:22)—most notably distinguished from the human shaping of relationships together. This difference is not distinguished by mere moral purity and ethical perfection but to be whole in relationship together (Eph 1:4; 2:21; Ti 1:8). Therefore, Paul’s call to be holy is inseparable from the call to be different, a difference which is irreducibly integrated with being distinguished whole from inner out and nonnegotiable in the shape of its relationship together (as he clarified in Rom 12:1-5). In other words, for the church being in ontological likeness to the whole and holy God constitutes church function in the difference that by its nature distinguishes church practice from prevailing practice in the surrounding context—the most notable difference distinguishing the church’s new relational order.

            For the church to mature clearly distinguished in its wholeness, the functional significance of its life and practice must be distinct from reductionism; accordingly in its wholeness the church must ongoingly expose the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion from reductionism and reconcile reductionism’s counter-relational work. While the church can absorb valid human differences, its ontology and function cannot mirror any differences that diminish its own difference. In its vulnerable engagement in the reconciling dynamic of family love, the church embodies the new relational order that equalizes all persons intimately from inner out to be whole in relationship together, to live this whole as God’s new creation family and thereby to make whole the human relational condition “to be apart” resulting from its human shaping of relationships. In unequivocal relational terms, the church in wholeness cannot mirror existing relational orders of human shaping or it would no longer be or live whole, and consequently render itself functionally insignificant to make whole, both within itself and in the world. A church, for example, may have multicultural aspects in its life and practice, but the church in wholeness cannot be defined or determined by them or it becomes shaped from outer in by human terms from human contextualization, that is, by reductionism. As Paul made unmistakable as well as unequivocal, the new creation church is distinguished by its difference from the common in the common’s sociocultural and racial-ethnic categories, socioeconomic emphases and gender characteristics, whose comparative values are all embedded in human contextualization signifying the reductionism of the common and its human shaping of relationships together (1 Cor 12:13; Gal 3:27-28; 6:15; Col 3:10-11).

            Paul’s call for the church to be holy, therefore, is for the church to live in its own difference from the sin of reductionism in all its forms. The church embodied in its own difference is not in a separatist, exclusionary life and practice, but is to be distinguished as whole in the midst of reductionism, and on this integral basis to expose, confront and make whole all reductionism—in unmistakable likeness to the embodied whole and holy God. This necessitates for the church both a further understanding of sin and a deeper means to deal with it.

            Being holy and sanctified is a relational process with the Spirit (Rom 15:16) that engages an inner-out dynamic. This inner-out dynamic to be holy does not stay ‘inner’ (or “spiritual”) because the Spirit’s involvement always integrates pneuma and soma, inner and out, for wholeness of the persons and persons together  (1 Thes 4:3-4; 5:19,23). This inner-out relational process with the Spirit to be holy and thus whole also composes the inner-out lens necessary to further understand the sin of reductionism (as phroneo and phronema in
Rom 8:5-6).

            Sin of reductionism also does not stay ‘inner’ of the person and is not limited to the individual. Nor is the ‘outer’ of sin limited to individuals in relationships, though these are the main aspects of sin Paul addresses in the situations in his letters. With Philemon as a slave owner, Paul points to the further presence and influence of the sin of reductionism that even this church leader and church needed to address. Paul understood that paying attention to or ignoring reductionism, its counter-relational work and its substitutes is directly correlated to our lens (phroneo) and its perception of sin. Our lens reveals assumptions we make about the human person and the collective order of persons together. This involves our view of the nature of humanity and the nature of the social order (or society). For example, if we assume the goodness of humankind and/or the existing order of life, there is no need for redemptive change—which was a question Philemon and Peter (as noted in Acts 10) needed to answer. Yet, even assuming these levels of sinfulness assures neither a need for redemptive change nor the extent of such change, a lack which Peter later demonstrated and Paul exposed (noted in Gal 2). The change perceived to be needed is contingent on the strength and adequacy of our view of sin.

            Paul’s fight for the gospel of wholeness, now extended into the church, is ongoingly also fighting against reductionism. This was an assumed inseparable fight for Paul because any reductionism of God’s relational whole on God’s qualitative relational terms to human terms and shaping from human contextualization engages the dynamic process of sin. Paul never assumes the absence of reductionism, even when its presence is not always clear, because its absence would not be reality. Nor does he ignore any form of reductionism, since reductionism as sin is incompatible with being holy and thus incongruent with being whole. All sin as reductionism needs to be redeemed, which is why Paul appealed to Philemon and confronted Peter with family love. Paul demonstrates in relational dialogue, not theological discourse in referential terms, the strength and adequacy of his view of sin, and this is nonnegotiable in order for the embodied church to live in its difference and to mature in wholeness.

            Even at the early stages of the church, Paul was at the heart of this fight against reductionism, calling for redemptive change to distinguish the church as integrally holy and whole. This distinguishing process is essential for the structural dynamic of the church to be accessible for all persons without diakrino (differential treatment) and the church’s contextual dynamic of reconciliation to absorb valid human differences in whole relationship together both equalized and intimate (dynamics discussed in the last chap.). Moreover, this fight against reductionism was not Paul’s human effort but the relational means to deal with sin as reductionism that he received in reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit (Gal 5:16-17,25; Rom 8:5-6; Eph 4:3).

            In transformed ecclesiology, the Spirit constitutes access and ongoing involvement with the Father as Jesus’ relational replacement for relationship together as family—the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for the church (Eph 2:18,22). Reciprocal relationship with the Spirit embodies the church’s life and practice in the whole of God’s relational context and process from the already to the not yet (Eph 1:17; 3:16-17; Rom 8:25-27), which is necessary to embody the church alive in “the bond of wholeness” (Eph 4:3). Given the ongoing tension and conflict between wholeness and reductionism, the Spirit’s reciprocal involvement is indispensable for the church to decisively deal with sin as reductionism in all its forms, and on this basis be clearly distinguished in its difference as holy and whole in the midst of reductionism (Gal 5:16-18, 22-26). How is this relational process made functionally significant for the church, notably given the normative character and collective nature of reductionism?

            When Paul addressed Philemon about his slave, Onesimus, he appealed to him on the basis of the family love experienced by both of them (Phlm 9). This family love centered Philemon’s focus on the whole of God’s relational context and process, in which he experienced God’s involvement in whole relationship together. While Paul centered Philemon’s focus on God in the relational process of family love, on the one hand, he also widens Philemon’s focus to include Onesimus on the other hand (v.10). These separate but interrelated relational connections formed for Philemon what has been defined previously as the triangulation process (cf. to navigation). Faced with each on corresponding sides of him, Philemon needed to decide what would determine his response: the wholeness of God in family love or the reductionism surrounding the status of Onesimus.

            Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “Live by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16) is vital both to be whole together (Eph 4:3) and to ongoingly live whole in the midst of reductionism (Gal 5:25; Rom 8:6). And Paul understood deeply that pressure and conflict from reductionism always intensify in the presence and function of the whole. The Spirit involves us with the whole of God in the triangulation process for God to define and determine the specific relational response needed to engage a person, situation or issue embedded in reductionism, and be clearly distinguished as different and whole. Triangulation with reciprocating contextualization serves to give clarity to the ontological identity and function of both person and church in order to live whole and thereby make whole all encounters with reductionism. Without involvement in the triangulation process with the Spirit, the influence of the normative character and collective nature of reductionism subtly diminishes, minimalizes and fragments persons, relationships and church, and often renders them to ontological simulations and epistemological illusions.

            In Paul’s transformed ecclesiology, the church as the pleroma of Christ embodies in likeness what Jesus, the pleroma of God, vulnerably embodied in the context of the common without being contextualized by reductionism. The embodied church maturing in wholeness is contextualized only in the whole of God’s relational context and process embodied by Jesus. To follow in his likeness, for example, necessitates embodying the reality that Jesus engaged various aspects (e.g. culture, institutions, social order) of human contextualization without being reduced by them (as Paul delineated, Phil 2:6-8; 2 Cor 8:9); and he intrusively also contextualized those aspects in his primary context of the whole of God and in his context’s relational process of family love. In this contextualizing process—a process involving deconstruction, transformation and reconstruction—Jesus unequivocally distinguished his wholeness from the common in order to make them whole (Eph 2:14-16). This dynamic interaction with human contextualization by the whole of God’s relational context and process composes what further distinguishes the church in likeness by the process of reciprocating contextualization. Engaging in reciprocating contextualization helps person and church maintain the focus on the relational source of their ontological identity, and this is irreplaceable for distinguishing what and who defines them in the midst of reductionism, particularly in its normative character and collective nature. This dynamic was clearly demonstrated by Jesus when he was tempted by reductionism (Lk 4:1-13), and that had emerged even as a boy of twelve (Lk 2:49). Moreover, this dynamic was implicit in Jesus’ teaching, which in function prevents his teachings and examples from being disembodied from his whole person and derelationalized from the whole of God. Paul also learned to distinguish what and who defines him while dealing with reductionism as it influenced his own life (Phil 3:4-8; 2 Cor 11:21-12:1,7-9). Without engagement in reciprocating contextualization, persons, relationships and church are more susceptible to reductionism, thus often unknowingly rendered to reduced ontology and function and determined in a renegotiated ecclesiology—and thereby no longer composing the difference that makes them distinguished.

            This process of reciprocating contextualization is what Paul also illuminated for Philemon to engage in order for his person and house church to be redeemed from the influence of human contextualization, with the relational outcome to be distinguished in their difference as holy and whole in relationship together, that is, in likeness of the whole and holy God. As Paul implied for Philemon, it is vital for person and church to engage with the Spirit in the dynamic of reciprocating contextualization, and to understand this involvement as a relational process in necessary integral function with triangulation. The urgency was twofold for Paul. This integrated relational process is necessary to be qualitatively distinguished from inner out in the common’s surrounding context of reductionism in order not to be defined or determined by the common’s function from outer in. In reciprocal involvement with the Spirit, triangulation and reciprocal contextualization function integrally in relational interaction to compose church life and practice to be “sanctified whole” (holotelos) and ongoingly “maintain your whole [holokleros] person blameless” (amemptos, i.e. whole, cf. tamiym) before and with “the God of wholeness” (1 Thes 5:23; cf. Gen 17:1). In this reciprocal relational process, the church is ongoingly engaged in its own difference as holy, and therefore ongoingly involved, in its own difference as whole—both ongoingly maturing in likeness of the triune God.


            Since Paul’s emphasis throughout his letters was on function more than theology, he engaged in direct relational dialogue over conventional theological discourse (i.e. in referential terms) in order for his readers to understand in relational terms (not referential) the experiential truth of God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. All his theology converged for this thematic relational purpose and emerged in just this integral relational outcome. For the whole of Paul and the whole in his theology, this is the definitive relational outcome ‘already’ that clearly embodies the church alive in wholeness to fulfill its uncommon relational purpose in the midst of the common, just as Christ embodied (and prayed for this family, Jn 17:15-23). With whole ontology and function clearly distinguished from inner out, person and church together live in “the bond of wholeness” (Eph 4:3) ongoingly in the relational imperative for God’s family, “let the wholeness of Christ be the primary determinant in your hearts…in the one body” (Col 3:15). On this relational basis alone, they submit their whole person to “embody what will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of wholeness” (Eph 6:15), and thereby be vulnerably involved in the midst of reductionism to relationally engage persons in the human relational condition without differential treatment in family love, and to reconcile them to equalized and intimate relationships together in the whole of God’s new creation family (Gal 5:6; 6:15; Col 3:11; cf. Eph 2:15-16). Nothing less and no substitutes for Paul constitute and distinguish person and church together to be holy and whole; anything less and any substitutes do not have functional significance from inner out. This is the difference that makes the difference. Therefore, the church as the fullness of Christ must by the very nature of its relational source embody this difference ‘already’ in the image and likeness of the complete whole and holy God (Eph 1:23; 4:24; Col 2:10; 3:10-11).

            Only the convergence, interaction and completeness of these theological, relational and functional dynamics “will make you ready to live the gospel of wholeness” (Eph 6:15) in the relational outcome ‘already’ of what the whole of God saves us to: God’s new creation family embodying the church alive and maturing integrally both in whole relationship together to fulfill the inherent human relational need and in the new relational order to redemptively reconcile the pervasive human relational problem. Nothing less composes the depth of the gospel necessary to respond without substitutes to the breadth of the human condition.

            This is the completeness theology of Paul, which signified his whole understanding from the Spirit and constituted his relationally-specific family responsibility with the Spirit to complete the communicative word from God for the whole ontology and function of the church in likeness of the whole of God, the holy Trinity. With the whole in his theology, Paul challenged the theological assumptions of his readers, even their theological cognition. In this relational process, the whole of Paul continues to challenge his readers for the functional significance of this whole relational outcome—ongoingly holding us accountable for maturing in the already while encouraging us to the not yet without letting the future become our primary focus.

            In his recent address to the contemporary church that mandates difference, Walter Brueggemann proposes:


One of the great and crucial tasks of ministry is to name and exposit the deep ambiguity that besets us, and to create a venue for waiting for God’s newness among us. This work is not to put people in crisis. The work is to name the crisis that people are already in, the very crisis that evokes resistance and hostility when it is surfaced and named.…

The church and its pastors await the gift of newness from the spirit. One of the ways in which the church and its pastors do that is that they consistently give voice and visibility to our common ambivalence whereby we are in a place for re-choosing, for re-choosing beyond all of our old, jaded options.…Ministry is for truth-telling about the shape we are in, all of us together. And that truth-telling makes us free.[1]




Maturing in the Discipleship Distinguishing the Church

            The church does not mature in its distinct difference of relationships together unless persons are maturing in discipleship. This brings us back unavoidably to Mary since she provides us with the most complete picture of maturing in discipleship. As a woman nudging past the original disciples, contrary to cultural norm she sits at Jesus’ feet to establish the relational connection needed to follow Jesus, thereby distinguishing her minority identity as his disciple. Further contrary to prevailing practice, her discipleship matures as she not only sits at Jesus’ feet but goes deeper into reciprocal relationship together, both vulnerably and intimately, to wash his feet and share in the steps ahead for him. Her reciprocal relational response (not referential duty) distinguished the maturing of her discipleship in the deep involvement of the primacy of following his whole person in reciprocal relationship together on his intrusive relational path.

            Since discipleship is composed by following Jesus in the primacy of relationship together above all other action (Jn 12:26), maturing in discipleship is going deeper “where I am” in relationship together with the whole of God. Maturing is not about extensive service or dedication to his work, even to help the poor. The difference is the discipleship that Mary embodied in her person from inner out; and the discipleship that Jesus made unavoidable for all of his followers by highlighting her vulnerable and intimate relational involvement to distinguish the gospel of transformation and its relational outcome of wholeness. Our maturing in discipleship, by its relational nature, must follow vulnerably and intimately in her primary steps on his intrusive relational path—the growth of which is easily stunted or misperceived by preoccupation in secondary matters (like the churches in Jesus’ post-ascension discourse). The lack or slowness of maturity in the original disciples (notably Peter) was due to their preoccupation with secondary matters—for example, the disciples wanting to give Mary’s perfume-money to serve the poor, and Peter being distracted from the primary and asking Jesus “what about him?” (Jn 21:21)—which exposed their relational distance with Jesus, resulting in not knowing him in relational terms (Jn 14:9) and needing to return to the primacy of relationship together (Jn 21:22). This also explains why they had difficulty fully understanding what Jesus saved them to and how the church was to be composed only by wholeness of persons and relationships together.

            Human persons have had a pervasive difficulty affirming the primacy of relationship, whether with God or with others, ever since the primordial garden. Though many may acknowledge this primacy, self-determination redirects their focus to other urgent and secondary matters; some may admit that their efforts get redirected despite starting out with good intentions, or even when they know better. Even our brains tells us of the primary need for relationships in our development, as neuroscience has confirmed (noted previously); nevertheless, our reason overrides this primary need and focuses us instead on what would be “good for…” this or that matter in self-determination (disguised also as the common good). In the process of human development, what so-called progress has resulted has had benefits, but these benefits—and who has benefitted the most?—have come at the expense of reducing the primacy of relationship and even the quality of life (e.g. as experienced in globalization and even in medical intervention). This purported progress in human development continues to shape persons and relationships in the secondary over the primary, the quantitative over the qualitative, in a reverse likeness that at best only simulates maturing and at worst embeds us in its illusion—“you will not be reduced…you will be like God.”

            Maturing in discipleship both affirms the primacy of relationship and grows deeper in its function, conjointly with the whole of God and with other persons in their wholeness and for their wholeness. We cannot continue to assume that our maturity unfolds on any other relational path; or we can expect the relational consequence with Jesus of “and you still do not know me?” (Jn 14:9)—a different relational path that Jesus clarified and corrected for them (e.g. Mk 8:17-21), yet still resulted in his frustration and anguish. We need to return Mary to her rightful place wherever the gospel is proclaimed. That is, we need to claim and embody with our whole person in likeness, the gospel that Mary claimed and embodied in her maturing discipleship.

            Discipleship based on the primacy of relationship together with Jesus on his intrusive relational path involves irreplaceably our whole person, who ongoingly chooses to be vulnerable and intimate with others, thus intrusive. Such choices are the agency of the subject-person—which should not be confused with self-determination conforming to expectations—the ‘who, what and how’ God holds us accountable to be as the person in his qualitative image and to function in likeness of the whole of God. The ongoing relational outcome ‘already’—not to be diminished by ‘not yet’—of each subject-choice to be so involved is the wholeness that distinguishes becoming complete and thereby maturing (the teleios of Eph 4:13) in the primacy of the following: what’s important to God, what’s necessary to Jesus, and what’s vital for life together in his church family. On this relational basis alone, discipleship matures in integrally claiming and proclaiming the gospel of transformation to wholeness in likeness of the vulnerably present and intimately involved Trinity (the whole of God for the monotheist Paul).

            The model that we have in Mary for maturing in our discipleship is simple but not easy, just as Jesus demonstrated and Peter experienced at his footwashing. Since it requires being vulnerable and intimate in relationships, and calls for being intrusive, there are easier paths to take for our development. What emerged from the primordial garden continues to challenge the person in our theological anthropology and our view of sin. Though we are always subjected to what emerged, we cannot allow becoming subject to its influence, whereby our view of sin ignores reductionism and our person and relationships become preoccupied with secondary matter that shapes us in reverse likeness—“you will not be reduced…you will become like….” Easier paths to development signify the presence and influence of reductionism, which when engaged even with good intentions (“good to make one wiser”) locate us on following a different path from Jesus (“Where are you?”).

            Not surprisingly, any different path from Jesus’ intrusive relational path takes us away from his intrusive cross to a derelationalized cross, a cross enhanced by traditional doctrines. If we affirm the atonement of Jesus Christ, it is inadequate to merely claim that Jesus saved us from our sin and not include sin as reductionism. This atonement can leave us in a worse condition than before we claimed it (cf. Lk 11:24-26). Furthermore, it is insufficient to claim we are ‘justified by faith’ and not live in the primacy of relationship that is both vulnerable and intimate. Such re-formed doctrines take Paul out of the context of his whole theology (Rom 3:21-31). Christ’s sacrifice was enacted only on Jesus’ intrusive relational path, which cannot fragment the primacy of his relational work from his only relational purpose and outcome of relationship together in wholeness. Faith is the reciprocal relational response that both affirms the primacy of relationship over any self-determination and secondary preoccupation. Faith is also the reciprocal relational response that claims the sacrifice of Jesus, in which the curtain was torn away and the barrier of the veil removed for vulnerable, intimate, face-to-face relationship together in the wholeness of these persons (God and those in faith), that is, the righteousness of who, what and how they are. In other words, the righteous Jesus saved us from reduced ontology and function and saved us to be whole in who, what and how we are in the primacy of relationship together without the veil and thus in transformed relationships vulnerably both equalized and intimate.

            Anything less and any substitutes take us away from his intrusive cross and derelationalize his sacrifice, whereby ironically those who claim to be justified by faith live in efforts shaped by self-determination that make secondary the primacy of relationship—contrary to what Jesus saved us from and saved us to. What results is not the relational outcome of wholeness that matures persons in discipleship and relationships together in church, but rather shapes those persons, relationships and churches in reverse likeness of the whole of God.



The Likeness that Makes the Difference

            As we extend our previous discussion of living in God’s likeness (review in chap. 5), maturing in likeness of the whole of God is not complex and yet it is also not easy given its intrusive demands. Whether we are talking about the whole of God, the triune God or the Trinity, there are two important questions to keep in mind and to answer for ourselves during the course of this discussion: (1) Who is present and involved with us, and (2) on this relational basis, what is revealed to us in relational terms that defines the likeness that necessarily determines our likeness? This who and what are crucial to distinguish the likeness that makes the difference.

            The extent to which trinitarian theology distinguishes the church in likeness of the Trinity—that is, the likeness that makes the difference—is arguable. This likeness is contingent on how complete the Christology is and how integrally the Trinity is based on this Christology. Paul was certainly no trinitarian but as a monotheist he fully understood the whole of God from the whole of Jesus’ person, who embodied with the Spirit the pleroma of God. Therefore, Jesus into Paul, also with the Spirit, embodied for the church the likeness of the whole of God that makes the difference. We need to receive the who and understand the what that they present to us.

To claim the gospel of transformation and the experiential truth of its relational outcome of wholeness in relationship together, and to proclaim this gospel of wholeness and live its whole relationship together in the world, necessitate integral understanding of who came and what has come that embody the gospel. The whole ontology and function of the who is inseparable from the what (saved to); and the experiential truth of salvation’s good news for relationship is contingent both on the integral relational basis constituted in the whole ontology and function of God and on the ongoing relational base composed by the presence and involvement of the whole of God. This contingency needs to be met in relational terms in order for our ontology and function to be in likeness to embody the relational outcome of the gospel. This integral relational basis and ongoing relational base are illuminated in Jesus’ defining prayer that clearly distinguished the whole ontology and function of his family in whole relationship together with and in likeness of the whole of God, the Trinity (Jn 17).

            In his formative family prayer, Jesus summarized his relational purpose to disclose (phaneroo, not merely apokalypto) his Father to us to fulfill the whole of God’s thematic relational response for intimate relationship together in the very likeness of their relationship in the ontological One and relational Whole (17:6,21-23,26). His prayer defines for his family this integral relational basis that both (1) distinguishes the experiential truth of the embodied whole of God (for Paul, the pleroma of God), “as you have sent me into the world” (v.18, “as,” kathos, in accordance with, like), disclosing the congruence between the Father and the Son, and, conjointly, that (2) illuminates their whole ontology (“as we are one,” v.11,22) and function (“as you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” v.21, “as you have loved me,” v.23). The who and what of God disclosed by Jesus is nothing less than the whole of God; and on this integral relational basis, the ontology and function of his family are defined and determined in likeness (“be one as we,” “as you…in me and I am in you, may they also be,” “as you have sent me…I have sent them”). This is more than a mere analogy that Jesus is praying for, but rather the dynamic outworking of the vulnerable presence of the relationship of God that distinguishes the innermost whole (“the glory,” v.5, “my glory,” v.24) of the triune God. So, who is present and involved with you?

            The church’s ontology and function are distinguished on the relational basis and ongoing relational base of only the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God, the Trinity. As Jesus continued to pray to the Father, this whole relationship together (defined as eternal life, 17:3), theirs and ours together, cannot function while under the influence of the surrounding context “of the world” (ek, preposition signifying out of which one is derived or belongs, 17:14,16); that is to say, relationship determined by our terms (even with good intentions) or by reductionist substitutes from the surrounding context, including alternative shaping of relationship together. Jesus made evident the ongoing conflict with reductionism this relationship encounters and pointed to the relational dynamic necessary to live in the whole of relationship together, which Jesus vulnerably embodied in whole-ly distinguished life and practice to be intimately involved with his followers for their integrally distinguished life and practice—to be “sanctified” (17:19) in the difference that makes the difference in order to be in the likeness that makes the difference.

            To reiterate our previous discussion (in chap. 9) on his prayer, Jesus commissioned (apostello) his followers for the specific mission “just as” (kathos) his Father commissioned him: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world” (17:18, cf. 20:21). For the Son’s purpose and function from his Father to be transferred to his followers, the enactment of the commission has to be both sanctified and whole to be compatible (“just as,” kathos) with the Father-Son relationship and then the Father-Son-disciples relationship. When there is congruence in intimate relationship together and compatibility of function in the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love, his followers together (the church as God’s new creation family) are not statically “still in the world” (en, remaining in it, 17:11) but now dynamically sent “into the world” (eis, motion into) to function whole in likeness of the Father and the Son with the Spirit in further response to make whole the human condition. What is revealed to us in relational terms to define the likeness that makes the difference intrusively embodies the good news of whole relationship together, which is integrated by the ongoing relational base of the Trinity’s ontology and function. Therefore, his followers’ call to be whole is conjointly his followers sent to be whole. This composes the significance of what to send out and integrally signifies the importance of whom to send out and defines more deeply why to send out (with the full soteriology), while providing the relational basis for how to function in his commission. Only this likeness will make the difference that distinguishes the whole gospel.

            Jesus prayed using the prepositions “in” (en, 17:11,13), “of” (ek, vv.14,16), “out of” (ek, v.15) and “into” (eis, v,18). He gave his followers no option but to remain (en) and to be relationally involved—not the spatial and relational separation of ek, “out of the world”—vulnerably and intrusively in the surrounding contexts of the world in likeness (“as,” kathos) of his whole ontology and function. Therefore, he distinctly qualified what (who) is to define them and determine how they function in those contexts—en is governed by the first ek, out from within its influence—with the ongoing relational base for their ontology and function to be in his likeness to embody the relational outcome of the gospel. This composes both the difference and the likeness that make the difference, both for which we are accountable to determine our ontology and function as persons in discipleship and as church family.

            The reciprocating process revealed in relational terms in Jesus’ prayer makes imperative his call and his commission in conjoint function. We cannot separate them or fragment them into various parts for us to follow and expect to be in the likeness (kathos) of Jesus as one with the Father, who sent him along with the Spirit in their whole ontology and function. Moreover, we cannot expect to mature in our person, relationships and churches without the full likeness revealed to us. Who came and continues to be vulnerably present and intimately involved with us for relationship together, and who communicates with us in relational terms, either will be relationally responded to reciprocally in likeness, or will be engaged in referential terms as the object of faith rendered to doctrines, codes of conduct and elements of mission. We are accountable for the difference and the likeness.

            What Jesus reveals to us in his prayer is that his followers in discipleship and his followers together as church will not mature in his likeness unless they also mature in his difference. Jesus clearly distinguished that he and his church family “do not belong to the world” (first ek, Jn 17;14), yet they are sent “into the world” (eis) composed by his difference so that they will be in his likeness (17:18-19). The dynamic of ek composes the difference necessary in his call to be whole in order for his commission sending them to be whole will compose them in his likeness to fulfill the transfer of the Son’s purpose and function into his family. This ek-eis relational dynamic (not dialectic) is an ongoing integral reflexive process, in triangulation and reciprocating contextualization with the Spirit, for his followers to mature further and deeper in their integrated call and commission composed by his difference and likeness. Therefore, Jesus made definitive: salvific life and practice to make whole emerges from sanctified life and practice to be whole in order to join together in likeness with God’s thematic relational response to the human condition “in the world”—the experiential truth of the gospel of transformation to whole relationship together.

            Whole relationship together is the defining relational outcome for which Jesus asks his Father to embody his followers together as the distinguished family in their likeness (Jn 17:20-23). Their likeness is the righteousness of the whole of God in relationship that Jesus earlier made the primacy for his whole followers in God’s kingdom-family to distinguish them from any and all reductionism (Mt 6:33), and the true righteousness that Paul made definitive for the new creation church family in likeness (Eph 4:24). Anything less and any substitutes for the church do not distinguish it from the human shaping of relationships together, and consequently cannot be counted on to be of significance both as God’s family and for the human relational condition. Whatever other likeness the church functions in will not make a difference. So, what is revealed to you to determine your likeness?


            Embodying this relational outcome of the gospel of transformation was integral to the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul. The image of the whole of God in the face of Christ was innermost for the whole of Paul (Col 3:10) and integrated the whole in his theology (2 Cor 3:18). To be transformed to the qualitative image of the ontological One and to live in the relational likeness of the relational Whole defined the ontology and determined the function of the church for Paul. Therefore, churches must make the critical decision how their practice is to be: either shaped by a framework with the temple curtain still between them and God, or distinguished by the relational context and process in likeness of the Trinity with the veil removed. The church only matures in the difference of the holy God and the likeness of the whole Trinity.

The ontology and function of the church in likeness of the Trinity is neither a paradigm (though the trinitarian example does serve as that) nor a limited analogy, that is, if Jesus’ defining family prayer is taken seriously, not to mention Paul in whole. But more significantly this reality-in-likeness is the relational outcome of directly experiencing the Trinity (for Paul, the whole of God) in relationship only on God’s qualitative relational terms. This ongoing relational process is integral to the ongoing relational base of the Trinity’s vulnerable presence and involvement in the function of church as family, particularly as revealed vulnerably by Jesus in the relational progression of following him to the Father and in the reciprocal relational work of the Spirit illuminated by Paul (e.g. Eph 2:22).

We cannot adequately “observe” the Trinity without being relationally addressed by the Trinity at the same time. Keep in focus that God’s self-revelation is how God does relationship. How the Trinity is revealed, therefore, is how the Trinity relates to us, which is how the trinitarian persons do relationship with each other (though in horizontal relational process discussed earlier). This involvement in the primacy of relationship together may appear limited to the God of revelation, yet we cannot limit the righteousness of God only to revelation without righteousness becoming the totality of who, what and how God is—though by definition righteousness defines for us the whole of who, what and how God is in relationship. God in righteousness and holiness is who is present and involved with us; and on this relational basis, Paul makes definitive the likeness that determines the new creation church family’s likeness in distinct relational terms (Eph 4:24ff).

We cannot epistemologically know and ontologically understand the Trinity without engaging the Trinity in how the trinitarian persons do relationship in their context and are doing relationship with us specifically in our context, yet still by their context. It is within their relational context and process that God’s self-disclosure is vulnerably given in relational terms and needs to be received in likeness—and not narrowed down to referential terms and acknowledged indirectly—thereby directly experienced as an outcome of this relational connection. To narrow this down to referential terms disconnects what is revealed from the relational context and process of its source. Thus, this consistency with the trinitarian relational context and compatibility with the trinitarian relational process cannot be engaged from the detached observation, for example, of a scientific paradigm, or with the measured involvement and relational distance of a quantitative-analytic framework (even exegetically rigorous). Rather this whole context and process can only be engaged from the qualitative function of relationship—in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit as demonstrated by Paul (e.g. 1 Cor 2:10-13). Similarly, J. I. Packer defined the process of knowing God as a relationship with emotional involvement, and he challenged as invalid the assumption that the theological task can be engaged meaningfully with relational detachment.[2] Earlier, Helmut Thielicke made the critical distinction of no longer reading Scripture as a relational “word to me but only as the object of exegetical endeavors.”[3]

This is the relational significance of the deeper epistemology that Jesus made a necessity for Philip and Thomas in order to truly know him and whereby also know the Father (Jn 14:1-9, as discussed earlier)—that is, relationally knowing the Trinity, which is definitive of eternal life (Jn 17:3). This is the relationally-specific process that does not merely see (or observe) but rather is deeply focused on the Subject (as in theaomai, Jn 1:14), that does not reduce the person merely to attributes and categories but rather puts the parts of revelation together to comprehend the whole of God (as in syniemi, Mk 8:17, which the early disciples lacked, and synesis, Col 2:2, that Paul gained).

This relational epistemic process is the outworking of the Trinity’s relational involvement with us. Therefore, to come to know the triune God is neither possible by individual effort nor is the individual’s relationship with God alone sufficient. This process involves the practice of relationship as signified by the Trinity that, when experienced, results in the relational outcome of whole relationship together as the family of God constituted in the Trinity. Thus this integral relational process involves the integration of both the primacy of the qualitative (heart function in intimate relationship with the Trinity) and the primacy of the relational (involvement together in the family relationships of the Trinity). Whole knowledge and understanding of the Trinity as revealed—present and involved with us—is never merely for us to be informed about God but always directly intrudes on our whole person and relationships in the innermost, thereby transforming how we define our person, how we engage relationships and practice church to be whole in likeness (2 Cor 3:16-18; Col 3:10-11). Maturing goes deeper in this difference and likeness, just as Mary embodied.

Consequently the ontology and function of the Trinity cannot be understood in referential formulations of trinitarian theology nor experienced in church doctrine. Along with reducing the whole of God to attributes and the trinitarian persons to categories or roles, these reflect how our understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” Rev 3:1, NIV) and our practice (“have abandoned the love you had at first,” Rev 2:4) become decontextualized or disconnected. That is, they are relationally detached or distant from the relational context and process of the Trinity, and they need to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity in order to be reconnected to the Trinity’s presence and involvement—which may also require deconstruction, transformation and reconstruction in our discipleship and churches.

The church is the ultimate practice that must (dei by its nature, not from obligation or compulsion) be contextualized in the Trinity’s relational presence and composed by the Trinity’s intimate involvement, which Jesus’ defining family prayer and salvific discourse on the cross illuminate as who and what distinguishing the church. Otherwise, the church is susceptible to redefinition. For example, an overemphasis on the notion of “the body of Christ” for the church—that is, focused on organizational structure, not relational function—can inadvertently decontextualize the church as the family of God constituted in and by the Trinity. Moreover, in another sense, with an incomplete Christology and truncated soteriology a church can unknowingly become too Christocentric, and subsequently not practice the relational progression to the Father vulnerably enacted by the Son and continued by the Spirit in the function of the Trinity constituting the whole of God as family, thereby disconnecting the church from the Trinity’s presence and involvement. These are consequences of the church becoming shaped by human contextualization, the variable shapes of which Jesus challenged in his post-ascension discourse. These are not the likeness that makes the difference.

The life of the Trinity transforms the church’s life and function in its likeness. This whole life as the family of God defines the church’s existence and composes its practice by, with and in the likeness of the Trinity. However, who is present and involved, and what is revealed, can only be received and understood in relational terms. Miroslav Volf also contends in apparent referential terms that “the church must speak of the Trinity as its determining reality,” and thereby acknowledges the limits of this church-Trinity analogy.[4] We need to ask then on what basis does he perceive such church determination. Perceived and understood only in referential terms render both the Trinity and the church to reduced ontology and function, without the integral qualitative and relational significance to be whole. Additionally, the church’s witness is rendered to a gospel without the depth to respond to the breadth of the human relational condition.

As discussed in chapter five, the different roles and functions expressed in the Trinity do not define their persons, though these reflect the unique (but secondary) distinctions each person exercises to extend family love to us. Each of the trinitarian persons is defined by the same qualitative substance (homoousios) that not only defines the equality of their persons (hypostases) but is also fundamental to their relationships (perichoresis). Thus these unique distinctions also do not determine the primacy of their relationships and how they are involved with each other. They are not involved with each other primarily on the basis of role differences but rather with the essential qualitative significance of their whole persons expressed in the relational involvement of love (both agape, Jn 14:31, and phileo, Jn 5:20).

This qualitative substance and these intimate relationships of love distinguishing the Trinity are what the churches in Sardis and Ephesus got away from. This issue is not merely a matter of priorities but about the primacy of whole relationship together, without which all other effort (even with good intentions) is insignificant to God and qualitatively meaningless. Given the high activity level of these churches, they likely had well-organized roles to operate so efficiently. This implies how they substituted for what is primary and matters most to God. The Trinity, holy and whole, is the only source that distinguishes the church in the difference and likeness that makes the difference embodied by Jesus for the human relational condition to be made whole. Who else is present and involved, and what else has been revealed, that will make this difference?

The corporate life of a church can be undertaken in either of two contrasting approaches. One approach is from an institutional framework or organizational paradigm. Institutions and most organizations are a function of structure and systemic processes. While the church has organizational properties of structure (namely interdependence) and systems (specifically covariation), the church in wholeness cannot be a function of organizational aspects. Such a framework and mindset tend to predispose or bias us to see and practice church in a limited way—with the substitutes of reductionism. This limitation is particularly critical in the information age and the broad influences of information technology, which Quentin Schultze contends shift our perceptions of the world increasingly through the lenses of measurable norms, means, causes, and effects—that is, a systemic concept (closed systems) of human culture, our image of ourselves and society that persons can objectively observe, measure, manipulate, and eventually control.[5] This leaves us susceptible to practice what Schultze calls “informational promiscuity: impersonal relationships based on feigned intimacies and lacking moral integrity.”[6] Does this pervade Western church practice today? In contrast and conflict, what is revealed to us to determine church likeness?

The apostolic church was not based on an organizational paradigm even though it reflected organization. At the innermost of the church is relationship: a covenant relationship (from the OT) in relational progression to new covenant relationship together (in the NT) constituted in and by the Trinity as the family of God. The church is a function only of these relationships in likeness of the Trinity that hold it together in its innermost, and any structure, system or roles serve only as support functions of the primacy of these transformed relationships. This contrasting and conflicting approach to the corporate life of the church is from the relational dynamic emerging from the relational outcome of direct experience with the Trinity—which referential terms fragment or prevent.

The church’s ontology and function in likeness of the Trinity is the outworking of the family relationships distinguished between the Son and the Father and illuminated by the Spirit. The function of these relationships only becomes relationally significant to God and to each other when it involves the qualitative substance of the whole person (signified by the heart) opened to one another and coming together in the primacy of relationships (constituted by intimacy). The relational significance in likeness to the Trinity emerges when our whole persons function together in the intimate interdependent relationships as God’s family in the relational process of God’s family love, not relating through roles or other indirect means. In practice this is the integration of primacy given to the heart and relationship together without the veil, which are defined and determined by God on the relational terms (not referential) self-disclosed in the Trinity for the church’s integral relational basis and ongoing relational base. Can we ignore who is present and involved with us and avoid what is revealed?

Reductionism has been the critical issue for the relational condition “to be apart” since Adam and Eve “knew that they were naked…and made loincloths” to hide their whole persons in the primordial garden (Gen 3:7-8). In likeness, variations of this relational dynamic have shaped the church since its beginning to reinforce or sustain the human relational condition, not to make it whole. Reductionism of and in the church is not a phenomenon unique to modernity, as demonstrated by the early churches in Corinth and likely Galatia (exposed by Paul), and in Ephesus, Thyatira, Sardis and Laodicea (exposed by Jesus in post-ascension). Moreover, reductionism in the epistemic process of understanding and truly knowing God has been most problematic—even a crisis today—that Thomas, Philip and the other disciples experienced (Jn 14:1-10), as discussed earlier. Yet directly in contention with the ongoing issue of reductionism, Jesus vulnerably declared in relational terms that he would not leave his followers as relational or emotional orphans, ontological or epistemological orphans apart experientially from the whole of the Trinity but as whole-intimate members together relationally belonging to God’s family. Given Jesus’ undeniable declaration and defining prayer for his family ‘already’, we need to ongoingly account for this in our practice of church. The integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for the whole ontology and function of the church are unavoidable.

As Christ’s followers gather (ekklesia), it is the gathering of those who have been called out and together (ekkletoi). How the church is to come together cannot be shaped in the likeness of individualism, fragmentary relationships of any shape, and thus not even in the likeness of a voluntary association. It must (by its nature, not obligation or compulsion) be in the relational context and process with and in likeness of the Trinity. This relational dynamic is the critical basis by which we need to (re)construct a functionally whole ecclesiology—the transformed ecclesiology that Paul clearly distinguished of the whole and that Jesus illuminated clearly in post-ascension to be whole, which is contrary to the substitutes of reductionism and thus in conflict with their practice. What distinguishes the church in likeness that makes the difference must then be composed by Jesus’ difference that distinguished the Trinity.

Consider what determines your church’s likeness. The trinitarian relational context and process never allow the relationships in the church to be reduced and become fragmentary by remaining distant, shallow, independent, or selectively involved. The integrity of the Trinity’s righteousness is at issue here. The Trinity never does relationships on these terms—terms that reflect and thus reinforce the human relational condition—nor does God accept such relationships from us. In contrast and conflict indeed, the whole of the relationship of God is both relationship specific and relationally significant to the Trinity’s interdependent relationships intimately involved in family love; and the gathering of Christ’s followers when whole is in this likeness, beyond a paradigm or analogy. The church’s ontology and practice must have this relational clarity or the veil has not been removed to illuminate its primacy in whole relationship together, and thereby its depth of the gospel for the breadth of the human relational condition.

The church functions as God’s family because of the relational outcome of directly experiencing the Trinity in relationship. The relational work of the whole of the Trinity in each trinitarian person’s function to extend family love to us brings us together in the church as the new creation family of God. The Father is able to build transformed relationships with his adopted children as family together because of the Son’s vulnerable relational work of redemptive reconciliation. While his relational replacement, the Spirit, lives within each individual daughter or son, the Spirit does not work for the individual’s self-autonomy or self-determination but for the whole of God functioning as family in the likeness of the Trinity (cf. 1 Cor 12:7). This is the only relational outcome covenanted by the Father and embodied in whole by the Son in the relational progression of God’s family love, which the Spirit brings to complete wholeness in God’s eschatological plan for all creation (Col 1:19-20; Rom 8:19-21; Rev 21:1-5)—the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for the church.

The sum of the Trinity’s relational work in family love constitutes the church and its function as God’s family. The body of Christ comes together with him and is integrated only for these relationships—to be the whole of God’s family (1 Cor 12:12-13; Eph 2:17-22). The church in wholeness cannot be a function of anything less than the primacy of relationships, family relationships, living together by his family love in likeness of the Trinity. Though the Son and Father define and demonstrate what it means to be God’s family, the Spirit’s relational work is the critical relational means to experiencing this relational reality and whose ongoing reciprocal relational work is indispensable to be whole, live whole and make whole the human condition.

It is these family relationships and family process in which our response both as individuals and together as church needs to be rooted and functionally involved. Yet, any association of the church to the function of the Trinity—most notably beyond a paradigm and an analogy—likely will challenge most ecclesiologies formulated today. The whole of God’s theological trajectory is improbable and relational path is intrusive.

Moreover, this perception of the church raises various related issues involving theological anthropology and eschatology, in addition to the pneumatology discussed above, while addressing an incomplete Christology (without the complete self-disclosure of God in the face of Christ) and truncated soteriology (without the whole gospel of what Christ also saved us to). For these to come together in the church as Trinity, we must consider that this conversation is engaged further within a context in which the reductionist influences of modernity are challenged, and that the relativistic challenges of postmodernity have created a climate that opens further opportunity for Christ’s followers, as Jesus prayed, to live together just as the Trinity lives “so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21) and “so that the world may know” (17:23). Specifically then for our immediate concern, the compatibility of our response involves two issues of church practice (among others) needing resolve: the place of the individual and the voluntary association of church membership.

Is the individual a secondary part of the church and does the church function in priority over its individuals? Or is the church a voluntary association of individuals and is the collective of individuals the church? Generally, an Eastern interpretive framework would answer the first set of questions affirmatively while a Western interpretive framework would be in the affirmative to the second set. The Western framework assumes that what underlie the individual are the common notions of freedom and independence. This is assuming that the position of self-autonomy and self-determination is not an option in an Eastern framework, but is the only viable one in most Western perceptions. These positions coincide with the differences in human thought between the ancient Chinese philosophers and ancient Greek philosophers.[7]

Yet when either perceptual framework of the individual is applied to the biological family (extended or nuclear), there are consequences for the individual and the family whole in both Eastern and Western families. Since the individual is commonly sacrificed in the East, the person tends to be lost in the family without a sense of the deeper identity of who one is as a person within the whole. With the aggrandized (idolized) individual in the West, the person also tends to become lost, that is, lost in oneself without a sense of the deeper identity of what one is as a person in the primacy of the whole. As a result of the ambiguity or shallowness of who and what the person is, both families experience a less significant family and less complete persons. These reflect the human shaping of persons and relationships that unfold in the church, which reinforce or sustain what emerged from the primordial garden.

Returning to the church as family, we cannot expect different results from church practice unless the whole person becomes defined and engages the relationships to be whole together, both of which are signified in the Trinity. This requires a new person who is not sacrificed for the economy of the whole (as in Eastern families) nor who is given primacy at the expense of the whole (seen in Western families). The whole person is distinguished in the theological anthropology that includes the deeper understanding of the image and likeness of God (imago Dei) that is relationally integrated with Christ as the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15).

            This understanding is gained from God’s self-disclosure in Christ as the image of God, who constitutes the imago Dei and the person in the whole of the Trinity. For Paul, the image of God in the face of Christ was not a theological construct but the experiential truth of the gospel who illuminated the whole of God in direct relationship Face to face (2 Cor 4:4,6)—whom Paul experienced in whole relationship together. The vulnerable presence and relational involvement Paul experienced was nothing less and no substitutes of the pleroma of God. Therefore, complete Christology was not optional for Paul but the necessary key to the whole of God, the whole of whom constituted the church’s ontology and function in likeness (Col 2:9-10; 3:10).

Just as Paul experienced the whole of God, the principle of nothing less and no substitutes also defines by what God does relationship and how God does relationships. Since the incarnation is the fulfillment of God’s thematic relational response to our relational condition, the nothing-less-and-no-substitutes relational response of the life of Jesus communicates two vital relational messages directly to us. First, the whole of God vulnerably extends the innermost of God to us and is whole-ly involved with us relationally (the meaning of agape love) because of the importance to God of our whole person created in the image of the Trinity. Secondly, the whole of God responds to us intimately with family love not only so we would no longer function relationally “to be apart” and remain as relational orphans, but so that we can integrally understand and experience the relationships necessary to be whole together in the family of God as signified by the whole of the Trinity (not solely Christ). For these family relationships and family process of family love, we were created and are re-created in the image and likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus distinguished for his family (Jn 17:23) and Paul illuminated for the church (Col 3:10-11; Eph 3:16-19).

Some theologians are now formulating theological anthropology by narrowly focusing on the image of God for humans only as the fulfillment of the new humanity/creation at the eschaton.[8] While this may extend the practice of the church, it lacks functional clarity to be of relational significance to the whole of God, thus is susceptible to reductionism. From the textual convergence of God’s self-disclosures, I emphasize that “Christ as the image of God” is what we need to whole-ly conform to (cf. Rom 8:29) to be the image of God. Complete Christology is irreplaceable for theological anthropology and ecclesiology to be whole. And Christ clearly defined and vulnerably demonstrated to us: (1) how to define the person, and on this basis (2) how to be involved in relationships, and thereby (3) how to function in relationships together as the church, the new creation, the family of God. The image of God involves all three to be whole with the whole of God—whole persons in the relationships necessary to be whole as constituted in the Trinity. The function of the direct revelation of the image of God in the face of Christ is only for relationship—not for the transmission of referential information about God—the relational reality of which we are accountable now to practice and experience. Who is present and involved cannot rightfully be disconnected from what is revealed. Accordingly, we cannot disregard what is revealed and not disregard who is involved; nor can we affirm who is present and not embrace what is revealed. Therefore, what is revealed to us is neither optional nor negotiable to determine the likeness of our person, relationships and churches. The question then shifts from ‘what is revealed’ to what are we doing with it and with who? Of course, we can always interject the question from the primordial garden to avoid both the what and the who: “Did God really say that?”

In God’s nothing-less-and-no-substitutes relational response, God communicates directly with us both by what God engages relationships and how God is involved in relationships. Furthermore, as Jesus consistently demonstrated in his interactions with others, this is the only way God does relationships, indicating the righteousness of God that can be expected in relationship, and that cannot be negotiated. Given the relational reality of who is present and how God is involved, therefore, our response needs to be compatible with God’s way of doing relationships, which is the primacy of God’s righteousness made imperative by Jesus for his followers to pursue (Mt 6:33) and made definitive by Paul for the likeness of the new creation church (Eph 4:24). The what and the who are undeniable relational realities waiting to be embodied in how we respond. This necessitates also functioning compatibly with nothing less and no substitutes. Anything other or anything less would not engage the qualitative image and relational likeness of God, the whole of whom Christ reveals fully to us when his image is not reduced by a substitute.[9] Only the whole of who is present and involved, therefore, reveals the whole of what determines and thereby distinguishes our likeness as person, relationships and church.

When our Christology is complete, the whole of Christ as the image of the whole of God emerges. When our soteriology is not truncated, Christ as the image of God functions to create the new persons with the veil removed for intimate relationship together as God’s family in the likeness of the Trinity—as God planned even before creation (Rom 8:29), prayed for its relational outcome ‘already’ (Jn 17:20-23), and brings to completion at the eschatological conclusion (1 Cor 15:49) through the ongoing process of transformation ‘already’ by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). This new person is made whole by being transformed (metamorphoo) qualitatively from the inner out, which is a substantive change ontologically distinguished from mere outer changes (metaschematizo) having perceptually similar form (for example, “apostles of Christ,” “angel of light” and “servants of righteousness” in 2 Cor 11:13-15). And the significance of the individual—which is often misplaced to individualism—in the process of completing this new creation is a person neither sacrificed nor aggrandized, neither reduced nor lost.

Accordingly, on the basis of by what and how God engages all relationships, the compatible reciprocal response of our whole person functions in the primacy of the intimate relationships of the whole of God as family—for the purpose not “to be alone,” not “to be apart,” not to be relational orphans, and even more significantly to function in the new creation image and likeness of God. Moreover, the response of these whole persons as the image of God in the new creation determines the relational involvement of whole church ontology and function beyond the limits of church as a voluntary association to be in the likeness that makes the difference by the new relational order. We need to understand this more deeply.

Some may perceive ‘the church as Trinity’ as a metaphor by which to envision the church. For others, ‘the church as Trinity’ may serve as an organizational paradigm to structure the church and its operation. Either would be an error of reductionism that would result in a reductionist substitute of twofold consequence. The first part of the consequence diminishes the reality of relational involvement by the Trinity, who experientially constitutes the church in the trinitarian persons’ ongoing relational work (the church’s ongoing relational base). The second part of the relational consequence from a reductionist substitute also separates (or distances) the church from functioning in its reciprocal relational work cooperatively with the Trinity to fulfill its purpose of embodying the relational extension of the whole of God’s family in likeness of Jesus sent by the Father (the church’s integral relational basis). The twofold consequence renders the church to a reverse likeness.

Just as the whole of God vulnerably responded to our relational condition “to be apart” from the whole and the relationships necessary to be whole, our compatible response back to God can only be the whole of our persons in transformed relationship together composing the new relational order of his church as family, which are ongoingly composed by and constituted in the Trinity. In the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love, the persons together as the church become whole in the image and likeness of the whole of God. Without this relational context and process for defining who and what persons are and determining how persons together function in the innermost, there are only individuals in voluntary association—individually and collectively incomplete. Theological anthropology and ecclesiology without the Trinity are incomplete; both of these apart from the qualitative relational significance of the whole of the new creation in likeness ‘already’ of the Trinity lack full integration with God’s desires, design, purpose and thematic relational action. All these theological dynamics converge in the whole of God’s thematic relational response to our condition in order for us to be whole in the primacy of relationship together in the new relational order, which is composed entirely by the Trinity and thus deconstructed, transformed and reconstructed from any human shaping of persons, relationships and the church.

The wholeness that holds together human persons and the church in their innermost has qualitative meaning and substance solely in relational significance to the whole of God, and therefore to be whole is the experiential reality only in relationship-specific involvement with the Trinity. The theological anthropology and ecclesiology necessary to be whole emerge from this integral trinitarian theology, whose antecedent is the complete Christology. The substitutes of reductionism are the only alternative for both the person and the church—the alternative from which the “successful” churches at Ephesus and Sardis still needed to be redeemed, as do many churches and persons since.

The complete whole and holy God embodied his-their theological trajectory and relational path with the primacy of the qualitative and the relational in order to integrally distinguish the pleroma of Christ, God’s new church family, in the primacy of whole relationship together in their likeness. His church only emerges distinguished in their irreducible theological trajectory and nonnegotiable relational path, however improbable and intrusive. And his church matures only in their difference and likeness.


The perception of who is present and involved with us and understanding what is revealed to us are always contingent on our perceptual-interpretive framework and lens. Paul makes this framework (phronema) and lens (phroneo) imperative to be transformed by the Spirit in order for the qualitative wholeness (zōē and peace, Rom 8:5-6) necessary for perceiving who and understanding what in their whole. Since Jesus embodied the whole of God in relational terms, who always communicated in relational language, their who cannot be fully perceived in referential terms and their what cannot be whole-ly understood in referential language. Without the new framework and lens from the Spirit, their relational language and terms are a hermeneutical problem for theological cognition that is commonly addressed by narrowing down who and what to referential terms and language to get around any hermeneutical impasse. This recourse is identified by the writer of Hebrews as a lack of development of hermeneutical means (aistheterion), which characterized those lacking in maturity and thus who narrowed down who and what (Heb 5:13-6:1)—which also identified the disciples lack of development (aisthanomai) and maturity (Lk 9:44-45).

The new phronema and phroneo were an experiential reality that emerged for Paul with the Spirit and matured in his theology and practice. So, on the relational basis of who was present and involved with Paul, and what was revealed to him and through him by the Spirit, Paul continues to declare to churches today: “For building up the body of Christ to maturity to the fullness of Christ, determine yourselves with the new creation, recreated according to the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness”—that is, in the distinguished difference of the whole of who, what and how we are in likeness of the whole of who, what and how God is in relationship, so that we will indeed mature distinguished ‘already’ in the relational outcome of wholeness that Jesus saved us to, and therefore will make the difference needed for the human relational condition existing both in churches and in the world.




[1] Walter Brueggemann, Mandate to Difference: An Invitation to the Contemporary Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007), 202.

[2] As noted by Alister E. McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method” in Evangelical Futures, ed. John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 23.

[3] Helmut Thielicke, A Little Exercise for Young Theologians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1963), 33.

[4] Miroslav Volf, “Community Formation as an Image of the Triune God: A Congregational Model of Church Order and Life,” in Richard N. Longenecker, ed. Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 223-225.

[5] Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 37-42.

[6] Schultze, 35.

[7] For an expanded discussion on the origins of cultural differences in human thought see Richard E. Nisbet, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently . . . and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003).

[8] For a discussion of this project see Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 141-264.

[9] Consider Peter’s image of Christ when he in effect would not let Jesus go to the cross (Mt 16:21, 22) and when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet (Jn 13:6-8). His reductionist images of Christ both prevented him from embracing the whole of God’s response and also allowed his whole person to remain in a comfort zone of relational distance.







©2015 T. Dave Matsuo

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