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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 8 Ecclesiology Transformed to Be Whole
Let the wholeness of Christ be the only determinant in your hearts,
to the wholeness indeed you were called in the one family.
The early followers of Jesus’ relational path were known as the Way. It is ironic, sadly, that many today who would identify as belonging to the Way, are threatened by or, at least, don’t follow the intrusive relational path of Jesus. It is no irony that Paul, who was threatened by the Way (Acts 9:2; 22:4), became a pivotal follower of Jesus on his intrusive relational path. Paul’s story is no irony because it was composed by the transformation that made whole his fragmentary theology and practice and his reduced ontology and function. He speaks to us today.
As God’s relational response to the human condition was embodied whole by Jesus, it unfolded into Paul from the Damascus road to embody his kingdom into his church. What unfolded was the truth of the gospel of transformation and its relational outcome of whole relationship together as God’s family. Paul, together with the Spirit as Jesus’ relational replacement, assumes the lead in the reciprocal process on Jesus’ intrusive relational path—Paul didn’t change because of unilateral action by Jesus—and becomes pivotal for our theology and practice in discipleship and ecclesiology to be integrated whole. We need to follow Jesus into Paul and then through Paul with the Spirit in order for this relational outcome to unfold further into us.
Before we move into Paul’s ecclesiology, we need to understand what Paul first experienced in his own life and thought. What unfolded in Paul’s journey was no transition simply from the OT to the NT, from Judaism to Christianity. What developed for and in Paul as a Jew was the transformation from old to new, not a mere conversion of religion (2Cor 5:17, cf. Col 3:9-10; Eph 4:22-24). Though continuity with the OT was distinct for Paul, his journey was distinguished beyond OT antecedents by the transformation from old to new. From the Damascus road and after, Jesus embodied God’s face that turned to Paul, not for Paul’s observation but only for the experiential truth of relationship together to make Paul whole from above—thereby embodying God’s definitive blessing on Paul, Face to face (Num 6:24-26). This relational outcome determined the ongoing development of Paul’s involvement with Jesus directly in relationship together, the experiential truth (neither propositional truth nor doctrinal certainty) of which then defined Paul’s Christology and thus his soteriology. Paul’s development would deepen the continuity with the words from God in the OT as well as widen the discontinuity with any of its reductionist faith-response and practice.
The continuity-discontinuity emerging from Paul’s development involves a hermeneutical issue. In the process of transformation to the new, I suggest that Paul’s lens of Hebrew Scripture also changed. That is, Paul changed from a hermeneutic of the OT that reduced meaning to reference or representation of God—for example, by reducing God’s desires and terms for covenant relationship together to a code of behavior to observe and perform, or simply to identity markers as God’s people (Rom 2:29; 7:6; Col 2:14). Paul’s change from referential terms was partly the result of tamiym’s hermeneutical correction and, of further importance, was more deeply a relational outcome. Paul was restored to whole meaning in the relational context and process of God’s communicative action—the words from God’s mouth (cf. Dt 8:3; Ps 119:13; Mt 4:4; Jn 6:63, 68-69). This changed his hermeneutic of the OT from situational content to the relational context and process of God’s thematic action for covenant relationship together, of which Paul was a unique recipient of God’s relational response of grace. This also took his hermeneutic beyond an apocalyptic interpretive framework.
Was Paul introduced to a new covenant relationship on the Damascus road? Yes and no. No, since the relationship still involved the same covenant relationship with Abraham. Yes, because the relationship necessitated the further and deeper involvement in it than was accessible as well as practiced in much of Israel’s history, which signified the need to go beyond reductionism, as Ezekiel pointed to (Eze 11:19; 36:26-27) and Paul clarified (2 Cor 3:6-18, cf. Jer 24:7).
The continuity-discontinuity issue is compounded by reductionism, the function of which must be recognized as the source of discontinuity and thus distinguished from the new song (cf. Ps 40:3). Paul’s new song was only the transformation from old to new: a new creation of the heart of the person from inner out made whole from above for new covenant relationship together (cf. Gal 5:6; 6:15), just as the embodied Word from God made conclusive for Nicodemus (a key antecedent for Paul, Jn 3:1-15).
This transformation to wholeness was the heart of Paul’s experience and ongoing development, and thus the heart of his thought and theology (2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Rom 6:4). In order to fully understand Paul, he needs to be contextualized deeply into God’s relational context and process. Paul was being transformed from old to new to go beyond a prophetic call and function in order to take the lead of God’s people, perhaps analogous to Moses’ call, yet beyond even that. In this sense Paul was neither an apostle of Israel nor an apostate from Israel. Moreover, by having his heart circumcised conclusively, Paul shifted essentially from ‘majority Israel’ to ‘minority Israel’, as he clarified theologically (Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8; 11:1-10). On this significant basis, Paul was neither an apostle of majority Israel nor an apostate of minority Israel.
What has continuity in Paul’s development involves only God’s whole and covenant relationship together only on God’s relational terms. What has discontinuity is only about any reductionism of these. Paul’s journey developed beyond those OT antecedents because the embodied Word from God directly spoke “face to face” with Paul, with the relational outcome that went beyond merely seeing mystical visions; Paul more deeply experienced the whole of God’s vulnerably-involved-person, and thus understood God even more clearly than Moses did (cf. horao, Acts 26:16). In this ongoing relational process Paul also grasped the functional and relational significance of God’s whole. It was on this developing basis that Paul spoke unequivocally, decisively, and without compromise about the truth of the gospel (just as Peter experienced from him, Gal 2:11-14). And by its nature Paul increasingly made definitive the whole of the gospel’s functional and relational significance, and thereby distinguished the experiential truth and reality of the gospel’s relational outcome of wholeness for all persons (Col 1:19-23; Eph 2:19-22).
Paul’s understanding is directly tied to his theological cognition of who, what and how God is, and his theological assumptions of human ontology and function.
On the one hand, God’s people—whether Jews or Christians—were the same for Paul, though, on the other, there was a qualitative and functional difference that needed to be understood and made whole. A Jew was not unclear about the identity of ‘who God is’. Most Jews in ancient Israel, however, typically had difficulty with the ontology of ‘what God is’ and often had problems with the function of ‘how God is’. These ontological and functional issues certainly influenced and shaped, if not constructed, knowledge and understanding not only of God but also of God’s people. Whether God’s people were the same for Paul or had a difference depended on his theological cognition of God’s ontology and function and his directly related theological anthropology, both contingent on where Paul was in his unfolding journey.
Prior to the Damascus road Paul claimed his identity with God’s people through membership in Israel as a nation-state. As a nation-state in Paul’s day, Israel was dominated by the Roman state and threatened by the Way in its identity as God’s people. Jewish identity was based on the identity of their God, rooted in the monotheism of the Shema. The identity of ‘who God is’ may have been compromised in Israel’s history but never redefined. Only the one God prevailed and would save them from their plight. The issue, however, was not the identity of who the Deliverer was but the insufficiency of both the ontology of the one God and the function of this God as well as the full significance of God’s salvation. Their God, for example, was also the holy God, yet the full significance of God being uncommon was not understood in depth (cf. Eze 22:26). This lack equally signified and constituted a reduced ontology and function from outer in by human terms and shaping, which redefined the qualitative being and renegotiated the relational nature of God and of the ontology and function of God’s people in likeness (cf. Moses’ lens, Ex 33:15-16). In the process, Israel’s identity as God’s people shifted to nation-state in a truncated soteriology and away from the covenant people of God being saved to whole relationship together as God’s family. Paul had to account for this as a Jew and be ongoingly accountable for as a Christian.
Paul received the needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction to understand the inner-out significance of God’s people (Rom 2:28-29). This further and deeper significance was based on the experiential truth of his whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of the whole of who, what and how God is, that is, Paul’s pleroma (complete, whole) theology as relationally revealed to him face to face in the embodied face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). His integral understanding of the whole of God and God’s relational whole involved his own ontology and function made whole. Having been restored to God’s relational context and reconciled in God’s relational process, as a Jew now from inner out, Paul turned from identity in a nation-state back to the covenant relationship of God’s people; and as a Christian, he experienced the full significance of the relational belonging and ontological identity of God’s people (cf. 2 Cor 6:16; Ti 2:14).
Turning away from nation-state, Paul’s discourse partially turned to “the kingdom of God” (e.g. Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23,31). This focus for some of God’s people, however, did not clearly distinguish “the kingdom of God” from nation-state as long as it was still perceived with a quantitative lens from outer in. Paul’s discourse about the kingdom was an extension of Jesus’ kingdom discourse, who made definitive its qualitative ontology from inner out (Lk 17:20-21) and relational function (Lk 11:20; 18:16-17). Paul extended this qualitative ontology and relational function of the kingdom as God’s people (cf. Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20), and he also further distinguished the kingdom and deepened the understanding of God’s people in his pleroma theology (Col 1:12-13; Eph 1:4-14, 22-23).
In the whole of Paul’s theology, and in the relational progression with Christ (the pleroma of God) and the Spirit (Christ’s relational replacement), God’s people became the relational outcome ‘already’ that emerged in the church (the pleroma of Christ). Yet, for Paul the pleroma of Christ (Eph 1:23) is not the institution of the church but the embodying of the church in the qualitative ontology from inner out and the relational function of agape involvement in the whole relationship together of God’s new creation family—integrally in the image of the one God’s qualitative ontology (the ontological One) and in the likeness of the whole of God’s relational function (the relational Whole). Nothing less and no substitutes of who, what and how God is and God’s people are could signify and can constitute their whole ontology and function. More important than as a Jew and a Christian, Paul’s experiential truth as the adopted son in the whole and holy God’s family was ‘who he is’ and ‘whose he is’, in whole relationship together, both intimate and equalized, with his sisters and brothers.
In the systemic framework of Paul’s theology, God’s creative and communicative actions are always relational actions only for whole relationship together. God’s relational action does not impose a template on the human person to reduce human function. By God’s relational nature, relationship is never unilateral but necessitates compatible reciprocal response and involvement. On this relational basis, Paul never assumed that the function of wholeness would simply emerge, nor did he leave wholeness’ function to the interpretation of human terms. Therefore, as Paul made definitive the integrated function necessary for wholeness, he also made imperative the ongoing redemptive change vitally necessary to turn from reductionism to wholeness, and the choice involved to be whole, live whole and make whole—God’s irreducible relational whole on God’s nonnegotiable relational terms (Rom 12:1-2).
In the first eleven chapters of Romans, Paul provided the theological clarity for the whole of God’s thematic relational response of grace to the human condition. Paul now concentrates on the functional clarity (building on his Galatians letter) necessary to function whole. Based on his theological discourse in the previous chapters, “therefore” (12:1), Paul issues to his family (“brothers and sisters”) a nonnegotiable call (parakaleo, “appeal to”) “to present” (paristemi) their persons to God in the necessary reciprocal relational response to God’s relational response of grace (“by the mercies of God”). What is this necessary reciprocal relational response?
A variation of this call was first issued to Abram: “I am El Shaddai, walk before me and be tamiym” (Gen 17:1). Just as Abraham was not reduced to being defined by the perfection of what he did (“blameless”), paristemi (“to present,” stand before) also should not be reduced to ‘what to do’ (i.e. “sacrifice”) according to religious norms (e.g., torah or a reduced popular gospel)—which would essentially be done in front of the curtain. Rather Paul’s call to paristemi was only about ‘how to be involved in relationship’ according to the whole gospel constituted by God’s relational response of grace that removes the veil. Then, “to present, stand before” God in what necessary way? How?
This involves the three basic interrelated issues integral for determining all practice, as discussed throughout this study:
These issues are implied in Paul’s discourse. In his nonnegotiable call, he is making definitive a further functional paradigm to extend his earlier functional paradigm of “holy and blameless” (discussed previously). This added paradigm is necessary both to be whole in reciprocal relationship with God and to live whole in transformed relationships together as God’s church family—which is a functional requisite to make whole in the world, just as Jesus prayed about relational wholeness together (Jn 17:21-23). This function forms the basis for ecclesiology to be so transformed.
For Paul, the church (the pleroma of Christ) is God’s relational context for the convergence of the theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest (Eph 1:4-14,22-23), and embodies God’s relational context and process for relationally extending these theological-functional dynamics to wholeness (Eph 2:22; 4:12-13). Pleroma (fullness, completion) is the wholeness that reflects the development not only in Paul’s thought and theology (e.g. Col 1:19) but also in the whole of Paul’s person (e.g. Col 2:10; 3:15; Eph 3:19; cf. Phil 2:1-2; 3:12, 15-16).
The experiential truth of Paul’s development—the whole of Jesus into the relational Paul to compose the theological Paul—is questioned or obscured by disputes over the authorship of some of these letters, notably Ephesians. Ephesians emerges in the Pauline corpus without the usual context—no personal greetings and situations noted, with the Ephesian title added later—to understand Paul’s purpose, or that he even wrote this text. Yet I conclude for Paul’s authorship despite any style and language differences from his undisputed letters, and that Ephesians closely followed his Colossian and Philemon letters. My conclusion of the insufficiency of these disputed details to deny Paul’s authorship is based on the depth of its content, which emerges to be an even further development of Paul’s thought and theology than Colossians presents. That is, this development is his integrated content based on Paul’s claim to have received further revelation (Eph 3:3-4), while in ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12; Acts 26:16) and in reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10, 12-13). Paul’s depth of development reflected in Ephesians is, to be specific, about his theological forest, which integrated his previous theological dynamics (notably in Romans); and then he extended these dynamics in the ecclesiology necessary for the relational function of the embodied pleroma of Christ, the church reconciled in wholeness ‘already’ by the pleroma of God, just as Paul introduced earlier and was developing about God’s new creation family (2 Cor 5:17-19; Gal 3:26-28; 6:15-16; Col 1:19-22; 3:10-11,15). It is highly unlikely that any author other than Paul could have formulated this theological integration; and the existence of a Pauline school has not been established to attribute this to one of his students. This is the outcome of Paul’s synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) of the church that was developing from its earlier beginning in 1 Corinthians (e.g. 10:17-18, 12:13, 27). Paul’s readers also need to syniemi further than the historical Paul in human contextualization to account for the whole of Paul’s person (in the relational Paul) and the whole in his theology (with the theological Paul).
Paul’s summary of his theological forest (Eph 1:3-14; cf. Col 1:15-22) illuminates his synesis of God’s thematic relational action in response to the human condition—the condition that, as noted earlier, neuroscience defines also as the inherent human relational need and problem. Paul’s synesis is the whole understanding of God’s response that becomes the integrating process, framework and theme for the various theological trees (the complex dynamics) in his previous letters (particularly in Romans) that makes definitive their theological forest. It is within Paul’s theological forest that the ecclesiology necessary to be whole, God’s whole family only on God’s terms, is relationally embodied and whole-ly emerges in Ephesians. Without his ecclesiology in wholeness, Paul’s oikonomia (family relational responsibility) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the relational word of God would not have been fulfilled (Col 1:25).
In Ephesians, Paul makes definitive the ecclesiology that by the nature of its roots emerged from antecedents prior to Paul’s letters and even predating his studies in Judaism. These antecedents were necessarily integrated into his ecclesiology. Building on our discussion of Jesus in the last chapter, the first of these antecedents was rooted in OT Israel as the gathering of God’s people (qahal, Dt 9:10). The Septuagint (the OT Gk translation familiar to Paul, a Roman-citizen Jew) uses ekklesia for Israel as the covenant community. This embeds the NT ekklesia (“church,” e.g. Eph 1:22; Col 1:18) in the context of God’s ongoing relational action with his chosen people and their covenant relationship together (Ex 19:5; Dt 7:6-8; Eze 11:19-20). Beyond being a mere historical root and religious heritage, this antecedent is important for understanding the whole of God’s thematic relational involvement and the theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest enacted only for whole relationship together as God’s family (Eph 1:4-5,14).
The term ekklesia itself, though used by Paul in his letters, has only limited descriptive value for the ontology and function of the church. Since ekklesia is a static term, it is neither sufficiently significant nor necessarily useful to define the church in whole. The more dynamic understanding for the church’s ontology and function than merely a gathering (even as ekkletoi) necessarily came from the second antecedent integrated into Paul’s ecclesiology: the whole of Jesus, the complete Christology spawning Paul’s whole ecclesiology.
The theological and functional significance of Jesus’ church emerged when the focus was given to the process Jesus implied in his statement to “build my church” (oikodomeo, Mt 16:18), which directly involves what he relationally embodied face to face in his life and practice, and which he made further evident in his post-ascension involvement with various churches (Rev 2-3). From Paul’s direct relational involvement with Jesus, he understood the experiential truth that Jesus’ relational involvement and relational work went further and deeper than a gathering, regardless of a gathering’s doctrinal and moral purity, its extensive church activity and its esteemed reputation (as demonstrated by churches in Ephesus and Sardis, Rev 2:2-4; 3:1-2). The relational language used by Jesus with the relational word oikodomeo only composed and involved a family living in a house, not merely a gathering under the same roof.
Paul later integrated Jesus’
relational word and its roots with their significant cognates for the
church’s ontology and function, with oikos as the basis for the
church as God’s household (1 Tim 3:15): oikeios, belonging
specifically to God’s family (Eph 2:19); oikodome, building God’s
family (Eph 2:21; 4:12); synoikodomeo, being built together as
God’s family (syn and oikodomeo,
The relational function of these terms (relational not referential) points to the definitive relational process of the new kinship family of God that Jesus constituted in the incarnation. That is to say, the specific relational connections Jesus made throughout the incarnation to build his family together spawned the embryonic church from which the whole ontology and function of the church emerged. Jesus provided Paul, partly through the Jesus tradition and mostly by direct relationship together along with the Spirit, with the necessary relational context for the relational embodying of his church and the imperative relational process for the relational function of his church. This is the irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process that the whole of Jesus vulnerably embodied progressively in the whole of God’s relational context of family by his whole relational process of family love. Thus, the church as God’s family was made definitive by Jesus even before the cross, and was fully constituted by his salvific relational work; and this relational outcome is what the Spirit, as his relational replacement, will bring to its relational conclusion—and Paul, not Peter, would engage the oikonomia to provide the ecclesiology necessary for the whole of God’s family.
Therefore, Paul’s ecclesiology is rooted in what germinated with the whole of Jesus’ person and relational involvement, who relationally embodied for Paul the pleroma of God in pleroma Christology for pleroma soteriology. This integral theological-functional dynamic was first Paul’s experiential truth and then was the key antecedent into which Paul’s ecclesiology is integrated for the church to be the pleroma of Christ. Any ecclesiology not rooted and integrated in pleroma Christology is insufficient to make functional the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology (what Christ saves to), and thereby lacks wholeness for persons and relationships. Such an ecclesiology is shaped by human terms rooted in human contextualization, which at best is only a gathering—an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of the ekklesia Jesus builds. While a mere gathering may have some functional significance for those gathered, it does not have relational significance both to the pleroma of God and for the inherent human need of those gathered (cf. Jn 14:9; Mt 15:8-9)—consequently reinforcing and sustaining the human relational condition rather than making it whole.
The doctrine of the church and church function is either whole or some reduction. This doctrine either defines the extent of what emerges in church life and practice, or limits it. Christ’s church rises up with him to emerge above and beyond a gathering in all of its shapes. The whole ecclesiology that emerges for Paul is not a mere doctrinal truth of this new church body but the experiential truth entirely of whole relationship together in God’s whole family on God’s qualitative relational terms. What unfolds in Paul’s ecclesiology?
In going beyond a doctrinal statement, Paul’s ecclesiology does not become a metaphor, an organizational structure or programmatic system for church life and function. Rather, his ecclesiology is the integral theological-functional dynamic signifying the embodying of the whole ontology and function of the church in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God. On this relational basis and ongoing relational base, whole ecclesiology signifies the embodying of God’s new creation family in the functional significance of its relational outcome ‘already’ in ongoing relational progression with the Spirit to its relational conclusion ‘not yet’. This ecclesiology emerges only from the embodied pleroma of God, who constitutes the embodying of the pleroma of Christ with the Spirit. For Paul, ecclesiology is rooted in God’s whole and is the theological dynamic of this wholeness, nothing less and no substitutes. Paul’s ecclesiology then is always synonymous with pleroma ecclesiology, the ecclesiology of God’s whole family. Therefore, the ecclesiology of this new creation is irreducible in the church’s ontology, and its shared new covenant is nonnegotiable in the church’s function. Anything less and any substitutes in the church are a renegotiated ecclesiology shaped by human terms from human contextualization, which renders the church to a fragmentary composition of persons and relationships lacking wholeness.
The experiential truth of being whole and its experiential reality of function in whole relationship together are both the theological purpose and functional concern of Paul’s ecclesiology. When he made the relational imperative in his Colossians letter to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3:15), his concern for the church was to be whole and to function in the wholeness of relationship together. For this purpose of church ontology and function, he wanted this letter to be read also in the church at Laodicea (Col 4:16). One person in particular whom Paul most likely targeted for this relational imperative of wholeness was Philemon, though whether he resided in Colosse or Laodicea is uncertain. Philemon was the slave-owner of Onesimus (4:9), who ran away from Philemon and with whom Paul shared family love and who now belonged to Christ as a son in God’s family (4:9; Phlm 16). We will discuss the specific implications of their relationship in chapter ten, but for now it is important to identify his personal letter to Philemon as a key letter for the relational function of the church to be whole in its relationships together as God’s new creation family. The Philemon letter is a specific relational context in which wholeness in ecclesiology is made functional.
Though written before Ephesians and closely aligned with Colossians, Philemon reflects what was already developing in Paul’s thought for ecclesiology to be whole. Following the course of Colossians’ theological dialogue (discourse in relational context) on God’s new creation family (Col 3:10-11) and relational imperative of wholeness (3:15), Philemon emerges prior to Ephesians to become a functional bridge to Paul’s thought and theology in Ephesians. In this letter vital to the Pauline corpus—both of whose understanding are diminished without their integrated development—Paul clearly illuminates the theological basis specifically for church-leader Philemon’s relational function and generally for the whole ontology and function of the church in the ecclesiology of the whole, Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology—the relational outcome distinguishing God’s whole family.
In spite of its basic need in those who belong to Christ, the experiential truth of a whole ecclesiology is often reduced to, not distinguished from, or even indeed, never realized as other than a doctrinal or propositional truth. While the objective truth is necessary, doctrinal and propositional truths are not sufficient in themselves to constitute whole ecclesiology. Paul’s ecclesiology is not compatible with such theological reductionism, nor is this reductionism an option capable of replacing experiential truth. This reductionism predictably happens apart from the Spirit, as Paul has functionally identified throughout his previous letters (1 Thes 5:19; 1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 3:17-18; Gal 5:16,25; Rom 8:9,14,16; Phil 2:1). Yet, Paul is not leaning to subjectivism or even fideism. Conjointly in his dialogue with churches about the church, Paul challenges the assumptions of ecclesiology and its related theological anthropology held by his readers (both past and present).
The functional basis for Paul’s ecclesiology is clearly identified as the Spirit’s presence and involvement. In Ephesians, Paul integrates and relationally extends the Spirit’s relational work. By reciprocal involvement with the Spirit, the Spirit baptizes and raises up those who share in (koinonia) Christ’s body and blood for the redemptive change necessary to embody the new creation. The new creation is not a theological concept with only theoretical significance; rather, this new creation is the experiential truth of the relational outcome that emerges only from relational participation in Christ’s death and resurrection together with the Spirit for the death of reduced human ontology and function and the raising of whole ontology and function (Eph 2:1-10; 4:24; Rom 8:6,11). This participation relationally extends to the Father to involve the whole of God in whole relationship together in order, theologically and functionally together, to embody God’s new creation family (2:18-22). The theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest (1:3-14), which are involved in this process of redemptive reconciliation, by necessity transform human persons from being defined and determined by reductionism to be defined and determined by whole ontology and function created in the image and likeness of God—that is, that to which the Spirit raises those in Christ (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). This new creation of wholeness involves conjointly and inseparably the whole person and whole persons in relationship together to embody the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family—all of whom and which are constituted together by the relational involvement of the Spirit. The collective ontology and function of God’s family define and determine its relationships together on the basis of this wholeness. These new and whole relationships together signify the transformed relationships between transformed persons that are necessary to be God’s whole family, the pleroma of Christ, therefore which are also irreducible for church ontology and nonnegotiable for church function (as Paul pointed Philemon to Onesimus).
The reciprocal relational involvement by and with the Spirit is indispensable to this transformation process to wholeness and whole relationship together, and the person of the Spirit is inseparable from the embodying of the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family. On this determining basis, Paul prays decisively for and makes relationally imperative the church’s deeper relational involvement both with the Spirit and with each other together (Eph 1:17-20; 3:16-21; 4:3-6; 5:18b-21). He also identified unmistakably the relational consequence for the Spirit when the church’s relationships together function in reductionism (the context of 4:30).
In addition, Paul implies that the relational consequence for church ontology and function is to be reduced to persons as epistemic orphans without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are (contrary to Paul’s prayers and Jesus’ promise, Jn 15:26; 16:13-15); and thus the deeper relational consequence for the church is to be reduced to a gathering of those who are relational orphans from inner out despite bearing the family titles from outer in. That is, in function such a gathering has no relational significance both to the whole of God (in Jesus by the Spirit with the Father) and to those gathered, leaving them essentially as orphans (contrary to Jesus’ claim, Jn 14:18, cf. 14:1,27; 16:33).
Jesus’ assurance to “not leave you orphaned” is contingent on the reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit. The Spirit’s relational presence and work is certainly assumed by Jesus as his relational replacement and is further illuminated by Paul. The wholeness of relationship together as family promised by Jesus (Jn 14:18-20,23,27) and constituted by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; Rom 8:6) is the whole relationships together basic to Paul’s ecclesiology and the wholeness he builds by making it the relational imperative for the church (Col 3:15; Gal 5:16,25; 6:16). Yet, Paul is not imposing a template for church conformity. As Jesus does, Paul also illuminates the reciprocal relational nature of the Spirit’s involvement, which includes exposing the lack or absence of the church’s reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit. In Paul’s ecclesiology, the relational consequence of function apart from the Spirit is to be rendered orphans, both relationally and epistemically (cf. Rom 8:12-16). ‘Relational orphan’ is a functional condition lacking the experiential truth and reality of relationally belonging to God’s family, even while claiming its propositional truth or professing its doctrinal truth. ‘Epistemic orphan’ is a condition of cognitive and existential homelessness, signifying distance, detachment or separation in God’s family, which leaves God’s children in ambiguity, confusion or even deeper conflict about who they are and whose they are. Apart from relational involvement with the Spirit, how church members address this inner longing for relational connection (which they may not consciously acknowledge) or handle the fragmentation of their beliefs/faith directly involves reductionism and substitutes of ontological simulation and epistemological illusion signifying renegotiated ecclesiology. Further discussion of this reductionist dynamic will be helpful for fully understanding the whole in Paul’s ecclesiology.
There is a counter-dynamic at work—“beyond what is written” (1 Cor 4:6)—underlying the condition of epistemic orphans that interacts with the condition of relational orphans in church contexts where distance, detachment or separation exists in their relationships together. This counter-dynamic overlaps in function with those living apart from God’s created design and purpose for life in whole relationships together (cf. Gen 2:18), that is, the relational consequence that emerged in the primordial garden that involved both relational and epistemic issues (Gen 3:1-13). The loss of whole relationship together became the prevailing condition for human ontology and function, thereby embedding and enslaving human life in the reality of relationships needing to be whole—the inherent human relational need and problem underlying the human shaping of relationships. Whether it is the general loss of whole relationship together in humanity’s family or the lack of whole relationship together in the church as God’s family, the consequential condition of relational orphans interacts with the condition of epistemic orphans to create the basis for either human shaping, construction and even reification of alternatives for the inherent human need, which includes alternative forms of church life and practice.
Or the interaction between these conditions creates the basis for acknowledging the inadequacy of human effort and turning to the constituting source of whole relationship together—God’s thematic relational response embodying the gospel of transformation to wholeness. This vulnerable response-dynamic is critical for the basis of Paul’s ecclesiology, while the counter-dynamic becomes the basis for renegotiated ecclesiology. How does this response-dynamic work to determine ecclesiology?
It will be helpful to use the church at Corinth as a working example, since Paul’s readers are given an overview of this dynamic in 1 Corinthians. Paul addressed this gathering of fragmented relationships with the epistemological clarification (e.g. 1 Cor 8:1-3) and with the hermeneutic correction of wholeness and the whole relationships together to be God’s whole family (e.g. 3:21-22; 10:17; 12:13)—similar to the clarification and correction he experienced from tamiym. His focus for their clarification and correction was centered on their learning from his personal example the meaning of “Nothing beyond what is written” (4:6). Assuming Paul is referring to more than his earlier quotes from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job and the Psalms (1:19,31; 2:9,16; 3:19-20), Paul focuses on the whole OT canon existing during his time. For Paul, however, what is written goes beyond texts and is deeper than mere words, that is, texts and words as the same narrow lens of the referentialization of the Word. The canon Paul focused on are the words of God and thus the relational words from God communicated to his people. God’s communicative action is the response-dynamic in question that Paul raises, whose initiating relational involvement Paul further illuminated in the next verse with the rhetorical question “What do you have that you did not receive?” (4:7), and later reinforces with “did the word of God originate with you?” (14:36). Paul focuses his readers on this relational dynamic. He is not raising a propositional truth for their epistemological clarification, nor is he teaching them a doctrinal truth for their hermeneutic correction. Rather his purpose is to illuminate the experiential truth involved in this relational response-dynamic initiated by God’s communicative action. That is, Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction made definitive that it is the experiential truth of what is written that is primary; and this experiential truth is not found in the text alone (i.e. merely as a text) and is not located in mere words, both of which are disconnected from their relational source by the counter-dynamic. Texts and words apart from their relational dynamic are reductionism that has relational consequences characteristic of reductionism’s counter-relational work (cf. Jesus’ critique, Jn 5:39-40).
Paul’s clarification and correction illuminate that what is written are relational words only of God’s communication, which by its nature involves a dynamic process of relational interaction: the reciprocal response-dynamic. The reciprocal nature of this relational interaction necessitates involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to know and understand what the author-God is communicating. An epistemic process with words/texts by themselves, even exegetic words about God, become disembodied, relationally separated from their author, and narrowed down to referential information about God. Consequently, any results at best can be no more than mere words known only as exegesis for propositional truth just about God, and simply texts understood only as a conventional biblical theology for doctrinal truth just about God, each without any relational significance of God and limited to reductionist functional significance only for reader-user. Such results or less signify the following consequence: when ‘what is written’ is reduced to words without relational significance of God and to reader, as Israel often experienced with Torah (cf. Paul’s assessment, Rom 11:7-8; 2 Cor 3:15), the relational consequence is the condition of epistemic orphans, who knowingly or unknowingly are without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are. This condition directly involves and affects human ontology and function, and is consequential for determining their further reduction in relationships together.
Having this whole knowledge and understanding is nothing less than the experiential truth of what is written. This experiential truth is entirely the relational outcome of direct involvement in the relational epistemic process with God by the reciprocal involvement of the Spirit—which is in contrast to engaging a conventional epistemic process revolved around mere human effort (as Paul contrasts, 1 Cor 2:13), including efforts at exegesis and integrating what is written in a biblical theology. Apart from this relational epistemic process with the Spirit, epistemic orphans also become relational orphans. The interaction of these two conditions creates the basis either for disillusionment and even despair, or for dissatisfaction and even desperation, which further creates the basis for human shaping of what is written (e.g. reader-response determination). Consequently, such persons go beyond those words having “lost” their relational significance, in order to find alternatives for relational significance to fulfill their inherent human relational need—whether they are aware of their relational condition or not. Moreover, this orphan-interaction creates the further basis for constructing substitutes whose ontological simulation and epistemological illusion often get reified as the source of fulfillment for the human need and resolution for the human problem. This reification, for example, has happened in mysticism and spirituality practices (cf. Paul’s polemic in 1 Cor 14:1-33). Such human construction and reification are what Paul confronts in his rhetorical question “did the word of God originate with you?” (14:36).
The response-dynamic of God’s communicative act in what is written and the relational consequence of being apart from it are the issues that Paul raises to challenge the ontology and function of his readers. For Paul, however, the most significant consequence of reducing what is written and going beyond it is the emergence of a renegotiated ecclesiology. Epistemic-relational orphans renegotiate the ontology and function of the church as God’s family in the absence of the experiential truth of God’s communicative relational action and involvement (e.g. 1 Cor 11:17-21, 27-30), renegotiating ecclesiology in contrast and conflict with pleroma ecclesiology (10:17; 12:13). In one sense, you can’t blame them for wanting more, signified in re-forming their theology and practice, if the alternative is to remain in the status quo.
It is also insufficient for Paul’s readers merely to acknowledge what is written as God’s communicative act. Paul assumes that affirmation involves the reciprocal relational response necessary for its experiential truth. Without the experiential truth of God’s communicative action, readers are still left functionally in the condition of orphans, epistemic and/or relational orphans. The only recourse is to turn to the source of the word for the experiential truth of its Subject. This critical process of experiential truth necessary to change from orphans to family starts with the reader’s interpretive lens (phroneo) and what is perceived of what is written in the word of God. The hermeneutic by which the reader engages the word/text is determinative of what emerges from this epistemic process. Just as Jesus critically distinguished the hermeneutic of “a child” from the hermeneutic of “the wise and learned” (Lk 10:21), the epistemic results are in contrast, if not in conflict.
A limited epistemic process of human effort from a quantitative lens dependent on outer-in rationalized interpretation alone invariably separates the object of the text from its Subject’s relational context and process. This reduces the ontology of the object-God by fragmenting the whole of God into components (e.g. laws, promises, teachings, example, etc.) without whole knowledge and understanding of the object-God as communicator-Subject disclosing the whole of God for relationship together. This reduces God to an object position and renders God to function without the relational significance of being Subject. The epistemic result is without the experiential truth of the object-subject God of what is written. This is the unequivocal relational consequence because engaging the object of the text also as Subject is a function only of relationship.
In contrast, the hermeneutic of “a child” vulnerably engages in a relational epistemic process, not to be confused with subjectivism or fideism. This hermeneutic certainly does not eliminate reason but puts rational interpretation into congruence with its whole relational context and into compatibility with its whole relational process; thus it does not disembody the relational words by the author that reveal object-God communicated from subject-God in relationship. For Paul, experiential truth must by its nature involve the relational epistemic process in which truth is from beyond the reader as “subject” and is definitively found in the object-God of the text disclosed by subject-God in relational terms. The reader alone cannot define and determine the object of the text without reducing the ontology and function of God to merely an object; and involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit is the conclusive means to disclaim reification by the reader. Yet, this does not complete the relational epistemic process for experiential truth.
It is vital not only to distinguish object-God from subject-reader but equally important to distinguish unmistakably the subject-God who relationally communicates with subject-reader for relational involvement together in Subject-to-subject, Face-to-face relationship. The reader as person cannot have relational connection with an object but only with the Subject whose reciprocal involvement can be experienced vulnerably in relationship together. This distinction is not conceptual but the experiential reality of any and all relationships. The relational epistemic process is complete with this reciprocal relational connection with the whole subject-object God through the Spirit, and the integral relational outcome is the experiential truth of the whole of God’s ontology and function in relationship together as family. It is this experiential truth of the pleroma (fullness, complete, whole) of God embodied for Face-to-face relationship together without the veil that is the basis, by the Spirit, to further embody the ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ and, with the Spirit, to ongoingly compose the whole ontology and function of the church—participating in the life of God’s family. The experiential reality of nothing less and no substitutes for wholeness is the functional basis for Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology. Anything less and any substitutes, even in correct exegesis as referential truth or rightly cohered for doctrinal truth, are a renegotiated ecclesiology signifying a reduced ontology and function of a gathering of epistemic and/or relational orphans.
Previous to Ephesians, Paul had identified the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Col 1:24), yet his later discourse in Ephesians on the church helps to distinguish this as a metaphor to illustrate an organic structure and system. In Ephesians, Paul’s synesis (e.g. 3:4) has deepened and not provides the theological-functional clarity to distinguish the body of Christ beyond a metaphor of the church and makes functional the embodying of the church’s ontology as the pleroma of Christ (1:23; 4:12-13; cf. his prayer, 3:16-19). Christ’s wholeness is the peace (cf. tamiym) that Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction have illuminated to the churches throughout his letters (e.g. 1 Cor 7:15b; 14:33; Gal 6:16; Rom 14:19; Col 3:15). In contrast to a Greek emphasis on peace, this is not about the mere absence of conflict for Paul, despite the conflict situations he was addressing in the churches. This peace is the presence of wholeness, even in situations of conflict, that only Jesus gives (Jn 14:27). Moreover, this is the wholeness that those “in me” will have, Jesus declared (Jn 16:33); that is, the relational outcome “in Christ” Paul illuminated by the koinonia with Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor 10:16-17) and baptism in Christ’s death and resurrection through the Spirit (Rom 6:4; 8:11; 1 Cor 12:13)—the wholeness that Paul theologically and functionally clarifies in Ephesians (2:14-17; 4:3-6), and that embodies Jesus’ new wine fellowship into the church. This new wine relational flow of his church cannot be constrained to a body or a gathering.
In full congruence, then, the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of God that Jesus embodied in death and the Spirit raised whole in the resurrection is also participated in by those in Christ through the Spirit (as discussed in chap. 6). The relational outcome of this communion together also embodies them in the whole ontology and function as the pleroma of Christ, in the image and likeness of the whole of God (Eph 4:24; cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29). From the convergence of these complex theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest emerges this reciprocating relational dynamic of embodiment by the Spirit, in which the embodied pleroma of God is relationally extended in likeness not by a metaphor but by the integrally distinguished embodying of the pleroma of Christ, that is, the embodied wholeness of the ontology and function of the church (1:9-10, 22-23).
What theological-functional clarity does Paul make definitive for the whole ontology and function of the church? First of all, that the body of Christ clearly is not a concept, a doctrine, a truth-claim or a confession of faith. This is the embodying of the wholeness of the church’s ontology and function in likeness of the embodied whole ontology and function in the face of Christ, distinguished in whole relationship together. Thus, this embodying is not theoretical, an ideal or an intention. The embodied church of Christ is the experiential truth of this relational outcome ‘already’ and its ongoing experiential reality in relational progression to ‘not yet’, both in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit. Therefore, the church is fully accountable to be whole in its ontology and function now for the primacy of whole relationship together. By its nature in the present, neither epistemic orphans without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are, nor relational orphans with distance, detachment or separation in their relationships together can account for the embodying of the pleroma of Christ in its primacy of unreduced relationship without fragmentation. For Paul, anything less and any substitutes of whole ontology and function cannot embody pleroma ecclesiology, but only constitute a renegotiated ecclesiology of reduced ontology and function. Embodying in likeness of the embodied pleroma of God in relationship together is the initial function that Paul makes definitive for the church. This function is not optional for a church’s life and practice, nor is it reducible or negotiable. The embodying in Paul’s ecclesiology is the key for the emergence of the church.
What emerges in this embodying that distinguishes it clearly from all other church life and practice? Embodying should not be confused with a common incarnational notion. Just as the incarnation of the pleroma of God is constituted in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, so is embodying. That is, embodying is conjointly whole ontology irreducible to human shaping and construction, and whole function nonnegotiable to human terms from human contextualization (including of culture and other contextual aspects). To embody the pleroma of Christ, by its very nature, is defined and determined by only the combined transformation of ‘who the church is’ to its ontology in the qualitative image of the holy God, and of ‘whose the church is’ to its function in the relational likeness of the whole and holy God. This transformed identity of ‘who and whose the church is’ is the new creation of God’s family, which emerges only by the reciprocal relational presence, involvement and work of the Spirit. Embodying of the church, therefore, is only the new creation; otherwise, its ontology and function cannot be in likeness to the embodied pleroma of God, as Paul clearly distinguished (4:23-24; cf. Rom 8:29). A diminished ontology and function can be rendered at best as just an ontological simulation by relational orphans and an epistemological illusion by epistemic orphans; but relational-epistemic orphans in the church neither can constitute nor do they signify the whole ontology and function of the church in the primacy of whole relationship together of transformed ecclesiology—the ecclesiology of God’s new creation family.
The transformation to the new creation that is necessary to embody the pleroma of Christ involves both individual persons and relationships. In Paul’s theological forest, the theological dynamics of this transformation process are made functional by the Spirit, and thus the transformation of persons and relationships is inseparable from the reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit. For Paul, the Spirit is simply indispensable for the embodying of the church to emerge in whole ontology and function distinguishing the new creation.
Paul reviews first the transformation of persons to whole ontology and function (Eph 2:1-10). The sin of reductionism prevailed in reduced human ontology and function, to which God’s thematic relational action of grace responded in agape involvement for the redemptive change necessary from reduced to whole ontology and function. The process from reductionism to wholeness involves the theological-functional dynamic of equalization, integration and reconciliation, or what I simply call redemptive reconciliation.
The redemptive change from old to new involves freeing human persons from being defined and determined by reductionism. A church with a weak view of sin, which does not address reductionism, is unable to emerge whole, mature in wholeness, or survive in living whole. Churches must understand that the sin of reductionism reduces human ontology and function to be defined and determined from the outer in, for example, by what persons do and/or have. This fragments human persons and enslaves human integrity, worth and identity to these reductionist criteria, to which are ascribed human distinctions not only fragmenting but stratifying human persons as ‘better or less’. Enslavement to reductionism is redeemed by God, and persons entrenched in better-or-less distinctions are equalized from inner out before God, which frees them from fragmentation to be integrated and made whole in ontology and function both as persons and in relationships. Therefore, transformed persons are equalized persons who have been freed from reductionism. Yet, transformed persons are not just free persons who have been equalized before God but who also have been equalized as persons with each other. The above influence of reductionism on the human person also results in the human shaping of relationships together (cf. Gen 3:1,7-8), most notably fragmenting and stratifying relationships. Thus, the nature of their relationships together necessarily also undergoes redemptive change. Transformed persons have not only been saved from reductionism but they are also irreducibly and nonnegotiably saved to wholeness together. In other words, being equalized from better-or-less distinctions conjointly and inseparably integrates persons to whole ontology and function and then reconciles those transformed persons into equalized relationships in order to transform their relationships together to be whole also—just as Paul previously qualified for redeemed persons (Gal 5:1,13; 6:15-16; cf. 1 Cor 8:1).
Embodying of the pleroma of Christ is distinguished only in the process of transformation to the new creation in likeness of God, which necessitates transformed persons relationally involved in transformed relationship together for the church’s whole ontology and function. The whole function aspect of this new creation, that Paul identified as the outcome of persons being equalized, is not merely the work of individual persons but also necessitates the collective function of persons together in relationship (Eph 2:10, cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13); this is the function that Paul qualifies as ontology and function in likeness of the whole and holy God (4:24).
As he develops ecclesiology to be whole, Paul illuminates the collective function of the church in order to be whole and distinguished from the common shaping of human contextualization (2:11-22). Transformed persons are equalized persons who are relationally involved in transformed relationships, which clearly necessitate equalized relationships (2:11-13, cf. Col 3:10-11). Paul makes equalized relationships together in the church the relational imperative for the whole function of the church to be compatible and congruent with the wholeness that Christ himself embodied only for the embodying of the church to be whole (pleroma) in equalized relationships together (2:14-17, cf. Col 3:15). In the transformation process to the new creation, the relational purpose primary in its theological dynamic of redemption and integration is reconciliation. Without equalized relationships in the church, relationships together are not transformed to whole relationships together with the veil removed between them, consequently they still labor in the fragmentation of persons and relationships defined by the better-or-less distinctions that stratify(2:15-16)—distinctions that totally nullify God’s relational response of grace in Paul’s ecclesiology (2:8-9). God’s relational grace that removed the veil demands the decomposition of human distinctions in order to be in relationship with God as well as the elimination of the influence from distinctions to be in whole relationship with each other. When the relational demands of grace are not responded to, human shaping remains the primary determinant for relationship together in the church. If a church cannot clearly distinguish the source of its relationships, human shaping has assumed this function.
Without the transformed relationships of equalized relationships, what the church is saved from has lost its relational meaning and the functional significance for what it is saved to; in addition, the gospel of whole relationship together that Paul made definitive has lost the qualitative relational significance of what the church is saved to (3:6). This is the gospel of wholeness/peace (6:15) basic to what Jesus embodied and constitutes for the embodying of the whole church (3:6). Therefore, equalized relationships together are neither optional for church function nor negotiable for its embodying. The only alternative is reductionism, which fragments church ontology and function by its counter-relational work, notably and inevitably promoting better-or-less distinctions, even under the guise of spiritual gifts and leadership roles (as Paul will clarify, 4:11-16, cf. 1 Cor 3:21; 4:6-7; 2 Cor 10:12). Such relationships only sustain the human relational condition, not make it whole—which has been problematic in the church’s witness through much of church history. This speaks to the depth of Paul’s conjoint fight for the whole gospel and against its reductionism.
Just as embodying of the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ should not be confused with a conventional notion of “incarnational,” the transformation of the church’s ontology and function should not be confused with an increasingly common usage of the notion “transformational.” Paul continues on to illuminate the transformed relationships embodying the church’s whole ontology and function, and, as he does, transformed relationships are taken deeper than equalized relationships (2:18-22). Though equalized relationships are necessary to constitute the transformed relationship for the church, they are not sufficient by themselves to complete the transformed relationships involved in the whole relationships together of God’s new creation family.
Transformed relationships are relationships both with God and with each other together as family. While transformed persons are equalized persons before God with the veil removed, they are not in equalized relationship with the whole and holy God. Nevertheless they have a unique relationship with God to participate in God’s life. This unique involvement more deeply signifies the transformed relationships necessary together with God and with each other to be whole as God’s new creation family and the pleroma of Christ. Paul initially defines this unique relational involvement as having “access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18). The term for access (prosagoge) was used for an audience granted to someone lesser by high officials and monarchs; it comes from prosago, to bring near. This involved not merely an open door but the opportunity to interact with someone greater. Access for Paul goes deeper than this notion. He defines further the nature of this relational involvement with the Father as “access to God in boldness and confidence” (3:12). “Boldness” (parresia) involves to speak all that one thinks and feels, with “confidence” (pepoithesis, trust). This trust to share one’s person openly with the Father—as Jesus engaged with the Father at Gethsemane and on the cross—points to more vulnerable intimate involvement, beyond merely having access to the Father. This is the intimate connection that Paul previously defined for those who have been equalized to be relationally involved with Abba as his very own daughters and sons, and the connection that makes functional their relational belonging and ontological identity (Gal 4:4-7; Rom 8:15). Access to the Father, therefore, involves this intimate relationship together in which the whole of God is relationally involved by family love in being family together (Eph 2:4,22); and this intimate reciprocal involvement is reinforced by Paul’s prayer for specifically knowing God in their hearts (1:17-18; 3:16-19)—the communion that holds them together in their innermost.
Just as important as equalized relationships for church ontology and function is this involvement in intimate relationships together with each other. Together is not a static condition but the dynamic function of relationship. On the one hand, the transformation of equalized relationships provides the equal opportunity without the distance or separation of stratified relations for whole relationship together to develop; but, on the other hand, intimate relationship is the integral function that opens persons to each other from inner out for their hearts to fully come together as the new creation in likeness of the whole of God (4:24-25,32; 5:1-2, 18b-21). Intimate relationships integrally reconcile persons who have had the distance and separation in relationships removed by equalization. Moreover, intimate relationships go deeper than just occupying time, space and activities together, even as equal persons, and take involvement to the depth of agape relational involvement in likeness of the pleroma of God (3:19; 5:1-2; cf. Col 3:14). Agape is not about what to do in relation to others but how to be relationally involved with others. It is vital for us to embrace that agape relational involvement goes beyond sacrifice for deeper intimate relationships together—just as Jesus vulnerably disclosed in relationship together with the Father and vulnerably embodied in relationship together with us (Jn 15:9; 17:23,26). This level of intimate involvement that distinguishes God’s relational terms for relationship together in God’s family cannot be substituted for by notions of sacrifice.
The experiential truth of the ontological identity of God’s new creation family depends on the function of these intimate relationships together. There is no alternative or substitute for intimate relationships that can bring persons into whole relationship together to embody God’s family in the experiential reality of their relational belonging. For Paul, being together is inseparable from relationship and is irreducible from the function of these relationships. This relationally belonging to each other in one family emerges only from the transformation to intimate relationships together. Relational belonging, however, should not be confused with “belonging” to a church-group, nor should ontological identity be mistaken for church-organizational identity.
Belonging in Paul’s theology and practice is clearly distinguished as relational belonging that is integral to belonging ontologically to God’s new creation family embodied by the church. By the nature of this ontological belonging, constituted by adoption, relational belonging is irreducible and nonnegotiable to the human shaping of persons and relationships. Therefore, relational belonging in our theology and practice of church must be distinguished from such shaping or it becomes incomplete, fragmentary and not whole. This reductionism is what Paul was always fighting against in order for the wholeness of persons and relationships necessary to distinguish belonging to Christ’s church, not just a church.
The relational outcome of adoption that Paul defined is the relational belonging of wholeness in God’s family. Relational belonging is not to be confused with mere membership or collective identity, yet that is what became Israel’s experience (Lev 25:55; Deut 7:6). Belonging can signify possession, relationship or ontology, or all three. However, whereas Israel had been redeemed to belong as God’s treasured possession, circumcision and observance of other purification and ceremonial laws became the markers of membership and national identity over the primacy of covenant relationship (cf. Ex 19:5)—thus renegotiating the covenant of love by prioritizing the quantity of their population and land (Deut 7:7-8; Gen 17:7-8). Perhaps in a secondary sense this practice of identity markers can be considered necessary for both gaining and maintaining membership in God’s people. Yet, this would not be sufficient to account for Paul’s primary concern against reductionism of God’s relational whole by human terms and shaping (cf. Rom 2:28-29) and for making conclusive the experiential truth of God’s relational whole (cf. his polemics in Gal 2:15ff). It would also be insufficient for the depth and meaning that Paul had in mind for relational belonging as the relational outcome of being God’s family in Christ (cf. Rom 7:4; 9:3-5). Their practice reduced the issue of belonging from the primacy of relationship in being God’s own people to the human terms and shaping of human contextualization, albeit with the designation of God’s name. Paul was decisive in differentiating their practice because previously he had had such membership and had claimed or achieved those identity markers for himself at the highest level, only to realize their reductionism compared to belonging in whole relationship together (Phil 3:4-8; Gal 1:13-16a).
Moreover, further illustrations of reductionism in human contextualization must be distinguished from Paul’s meaning of belonging, whose intensity of meaning deepens in Paul’s whole theology. What determines this relational belonging for Paul is neither the limited participation commonly found in voluntary associations during Paul’s time, nor the measured engagement of family obligation (opheilo) characterizing kinship groups in the Mediterranean world. Human contextualization is unable to define or determine the relational function of belonging without losing wholeness in relationship together. This relational belonging is determined entirely by transformed relationships (both equalized and intimate), the relationships necessary for wholeness together in likeness to the relational ontology of the whole of God (Gal 3:26-28; 6:15; Col 3:10-11; Eph 4:24).
When we talk about belonging to a church today, Paul holds us accountable to distinguish in our theology and practice what he personally experienced. If we cannot clearly distinguish our belonging along with Paul, then our church involvement is subject to the illusion and simulation from reductionism. The reality is that all persons have the created need to belong relationally—from which it is “not good to be apart”—and the fact is how persons usually meet this need is less than whole, even notably in and through church. Churches, then, need to realize that despite any cohesion of “belonging” and strength of identity in alternative church involvement, they are just simulations or illusions of the relational bond constituted only by transformed intimate relationships together (cf. Eph 4:3).
Paul conjoins these intimate relationships together with the necessary equalized relationships in a dynamic interaction to complete the transformed relationships together to embody the whole ontology and function of the church. These conjoint-transformed relationships in wholeness embody “a holy temple…a dwelling place” for the whole of God’s intimate relational involvement (2:19-22), which Jesus earlier disclosed (Jn 14:23). In Paul’s transformed ecclesiology, the whole ontology and function of the church can be constituted only by transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together; and transformed relationships are constituted only by the conjoint function of equalized and intimate relationships together. Therefore, church ontology and function is this new creation in likeness of the whole and holy God, with no less or without substitutes. And the function of these transformed relationships together, both equalized and intimate, distinguish the church unequivocally as God’s new creation family, whereby those who relationally belong in this definitive ontological identity are clearly distinguished from any other church gathering of relational and epistemic orphans. Most importantly, this relational dynamic and outcome of wholeness emerges entirely by the ongoing reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit (2:18,22; 4:3-4; cf. Ti 3:5), which is why the Spirit’s person is grieved by reduced ontology and function in the church (the context of 4:30).
Embodying the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ in transformed relationship together is a relational function composed only in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes—in likeness of the dynamic embodying of the whole of God by Jesus. The wholeness of God defines and determines who the church is and whose the church is. Yet, having this relational clarity of wholeness together is one issue for the church, and living its functional significance in wholeness together is a further issue ongoing in church life and practice. That is, for the church to be whole is one matter, and for the church to live whole and also make whole is another matter; even so, for Paul these functions are inseparably interrelated in God’s new creation family. This ongoing issue for the church further amplifies the tension and conflict between wholeness and reductionism, which Paul continues to address in his ecclesiology.
As the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function emerges, reductionism and its counter-relational work increasingly seek to exert more indirect and subtle influence to define and determine church life and practice with ontological simulations and epistemological illusions, which Paul illuminated previously to the church at Corinth (2 Cor 11:12-15). In the further theological-functional clarity Paul illuminates in his transformed pleroma ecclesiology, the functional significance of the church is never assumed but is a relational imperative ongoing for church life and practice in wholeness together; and this includes assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the church. What is this functional significance and how does its dynamic work for wholeness?
When Paul defines the church as being reconciled in one body (Eph 2:16) and as equalized persons relationally belonging to God’s family (oikeios, 2:19), this oikodome (church family not church building) is further defined as being “joined together” (2:21). Paul is providing further theological-functional clarity to his previous dialogue on the church (1 Cor 12:12-31; Rom 12:5). His earlier relational discourse appears to describe an organic or organizational structure of the church whose parts are interrelated and function in interdependence. Paul deepens the understanding of interrelated parts in interdependence by further defining the relational dynamic involved to make this function in wholeness together (4:16).
This oikodome is dynamic, not static, and by its dynamic nature necessitates ongoing growth (“building up,” oikodome) for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function as the pleroma of Christ, as Paul illuminates (4:12-13). The dynamic of oikodome both defines the church family in joint interrelations together, and determines how church family interrelations function in the interdependence necessary for embodying wholeness in its ontology and function. In Paul’s ecclesiology, oikodome is relationship-specific to the church as family, not as a religious group or organization (2:22), and, therefore, the dynamic of oikodome is functionally significant in only the depth of its relational involvement together, not to the extent of its working relations (4:15-16,25). This points to two contrasting ways interrelatedness is defined and interdependence is determined. These distinctions are critical to understand and ongoingly are essential to make because each involves a different church ontology and function, with different perceptions of human ontology and function. Not surprisingly for Paul, this difference involves the contrast between wholeness and reductionism.
Oikodome is rooted ‘in Christ’ and thus embodies Christ’s wholeness (1:23; 2:21). The dynamic of oikodome is a function of the dynamic of wholeness in ontology and function, conjointly of whole persons and whole persons in whole relationship together (i.e. transformed persons in transformed relationships together). Accordingly, the interrelations of oikodome are constituted only by whole/transformed persons in whole/transformed relationships together both equalized and intimate. Reductionism more likely does not blatantly fragment these whole interrelations, for example, as Paul encountered between Jew and Gentile, but more subtly redefines ontology and function for person and church to create distance, detachment or separation in church relations and thereby making relationships together fragmentary. Such fragmentation is effectively accomplished by defining persons from outer in by what they do/have, and accordingly creating better-or-less distinctions in stratified relations that prevent deeper relational involvement (cf. 4:2). This is accomplished in a subtle yet insidious way when church leaders and church members define themselves by their roles and/or gifts and relate to each other in the church based on their roles or gifts, all for the work of ministry for building up the church. This dynamic may work for group cohesion or organizational identity in building up a gathering but it signifies a reduced ontology and function for both person and church; it is, however, not the work “created in Christ Jesus” that Paul means for the church (2:10). Such practice is a major misinterpretation of Paul’s ecclesiology—likely fragmented by using a model from 1 Corinthians 12 out of context—which does not have the relational outcome he defined for whole church interrelations and their function in interdependence (4:11-13).
In Paul’s whole ecclesiology, the functional significance of church ontology and function emerges as the church lives “created according to the likeness of God” (4:24). The church, for Paul, is the Father’s new creation family embodied in Christ and raised up by the Spirit in the relational likeness of this whole of God, who dwells intimately present and agape-relationally involved. If not created and functioning in this likeness, church becomes a gathering from human shaping or construction in likeness of some aspect of human contextualization, which then often reifies its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions as the body of Christ.
As noted previously, Paul was no trinitarian in his theological development, yet his monotheism went beyond the knowledge and understanding of the Shema in Judaism. His experiential truth of Jesus and the Spirit in ongoing relationship together gave him whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God. The relational and functional significance of Paul’s whole God constituted him as a new creation in God’s family and provided the integral relation basis and ongoing relational base for the church as God’s new creation family to be in the relational likeness of this whole of God whom he himself was experiencing. The church in likeness of the whole of God was not a theological construct in Paul’s ecclesiology; and as a concept it has growing interest in modern theology, of course, as the church in likeness of the Trinity. Yet, Paul’s understanding of the church’s likeness emerged from engagement in the relational epistemic process with the whole of God, the synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) of which appears to elude many of his readers.
In complete ecclesiology rooted in complete Christology, church ontology and function in likeness of the whole of God is not a construct but the embodying of the relational dynamic that emerges from whole relational involvement together with both God and each other. The embodying of the interrelations of transformed/whole persons in these transformed/whole relationships is functionally significant only as it emerges in relational likeness to the whole of God’s relationships within the Godhead (cf. Col 2:9-10; 3:10-11). The interrelations within the whole of God between the Father, the Son and the Spirit can best (not totally) be defined as follows: intimate relationship to the depth that, as Jesus disclosed, to see the Son is to see the Father, to know the Son is to know the Father (Jn 14:9; 17:26); and their intimate relationship functions together in the dynamic interaction of interdependence to the further depth that, as Jesus promised and the Father fulfilled, the Spirit’s person will be his relational replacement so that his followers would not be reduced to orphans, but by the Spirit’s relational presence and involvement the Father and the Son will be also and they all will be intimately involved together as family (Jn 14:18,23; 15:26; 16:14-15). Paul was further illuminating this intimate interrelationship together in interdependence in his letters, which he develops theologically and functionally in transformed ecclesiology for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function. In trinitarian theology, this relational dynamic of God is inadequately described as perichoresis, tending to be overly conceptual. Likewise, more church theology and practice today are conceived on a trinitarian basis, yet have not translated well in function to have the relational significance distinguished by the whole of God.
The interdependence within the whole of God can only be understood to the extent that God has disclosed his ontology and function. In Paul’s theological systemic framework and forest, his experiential truth centered on the function Jesus embodied and on the overlapping and extended function the Spirit enacted, both of which the Father initiated and ongoingly functions to oversee. Paul’s relational connection to each of them appears to be in their specific functions, which seem to overlap and interact yet remain unique to each of them. How this is perceived and interpreted has theological implications or repercussions depending on the interpretive framework of Paul’s readers—notably in defining our person and determining our relationships.
Interacting functions in themselves, however, do not account for the dynamic of the trinitarian Persons’ whole relationship together, which underlies each of their functions and which integrates their uniqueness into the whole they constitute together in the innermost, the whole of God. The ontology and function of God’s whole relationship together lives also in interdependence. In this dynamic, any distinctions of their unique functions are rendered secondary to the primacy of relationship together; and such distinctions should not be used to define each of them or to determine their position in the Godhead. As vulnerably disclosed, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are irreducibly defined and inseparably determined only by whole relationship together, and this relational dynamic functions in various involvements in human contexts and with human contextualization to enact, embody and complete the whole of God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition, that is, to save both from reductionism and to wholeness together. To highlight their distinctions, for example, by being overly christocentric, simply binitarian, just role-specific or even gender-specific, is to diminish the whole of God’s ontology and to fragment the whole of God’s function.
Paul understood their whole relationship together as the experiential truth of the whole of God relationally undifferentiated. His synesis of this relationally whole God was the theological-functional basis for the church’s whole ontology and function to be embodied in likeness (Eph 4:4-6). Anything less or any substitute is neither in relational likeness to the whole of God, nor, therefore, embodies the intimate interrelationships together in interdependence to grow in the wholeness of the pleroma of Christ (4:12b-13).
The ontology and function of whole relationships together, either for God or the church, live in interdependence, which for the church is the relational outcome and ongoing dynamic of transformed persons relationally involved in transformed relationships together. Church interdependence in likeness of the whole of God’s interdependence enters a critical condition when it shifts from being a function of transformed/whole relationships together. In an early letter, Paul warned against such a shift as he described this interdependence for the fragmented church at Corinth (1 Cor 12:12-31). This interdependence of the individual parts involved the connections together that resulted in covariation between the individual parts; moreover, if the parts are properly connected together, the implied result would be synergism in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its individual parts (12:25-26; cf. Eph 4:16). What Paul points to that constitutes the connection is the relational involvement of agape (12:31). In his Romans letter, Paul provided the theological clarification needed to define the transformed relationships together as the basis for church interdependence (Rom 12:3-16). Both of these church scenarios struggled with the influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work affecting their relationships together.
Reductionism, however, is often not as blatant as at the church in Corinth. As noted earlier, it is often more indirect and subtle, for example, involving assimilation into human contexts as existed perhaps in the Roman church (cf. Rom 12:2). The norms prevailing in the surrounding context are in their function mainly how reductionism affects church relationships together in general and church interdependence in particular. For example, when the norm for defining persons is based on what roles they perform and/or resources they have, this determines how relationships function, which affects a church’s interrelations together and, subsequently, affects church interdependence. Cultural models of family, social models of group relations, organizational and business models of interdependence, all influence a church’s interrelations together and its interdependence by these various shaping of relationships together substituting for the relational likeness of God. Furthermore, norms of individualism and individual freedom foster the independence that strain and weaken church relationships together and counter church interdependence, thereby redefining, reshaping and reconstructing what it means to be created in the likeness of God.
Reductionism defines a church and explains church function by the deeds of its individuals and their resources. A church, therefore, becomes the sum of its individuals; church interdependence is thus no longer the relational outcome of relationships together with the Spirit but a byproduct at the mercy of individuals. The shift from top-down and inner-out to bottom-up and outer-in is subtle. In the Western church today, synergism has been replaced by individualism, and church interdependence has been renegotiated to church dependence on the individual’s terms—in contrast to Paul’s relational imperative for the church (Eph 4:2,15-16; cf. Col 3:10-15). Independence is the reductionist alternative to interdependence and, intentionally or unintentionally, serves as the functional substitute for it, with freedom as its identity marker. This dynamic also operates in non-Western churches in a less obvious variation of the human shaping of relationships together defining church ontology and church function. This was a major issue that Paul was fighting against, making epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, even in that collective-oriented sociocultural context (e.g. Gal 5:1,13; Rom 12:3; Phil 2:1-4; 1 Cor 4:7; 8:1,9). Even modern neuroscience recognizes that interdependence is the natural state for human persons, and that independence is a political notion, not a scientific one.
Paul challenged the renegotiated ecclesiology of churches in reduced ontology and function, and also challenged the assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the definition of the person and its determination of relationships together in reductionist terms. Both of these conditions existed in churches apart from, in contrast to, or in conflict with the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God. Paul’s challenges to such reductionism are summarized in his response to make relationally specific the functional significance of the transformed ecclesiology of God’s family (Eph 4:14-25). His theological-functional clarity of this functional significance is directly connected to and emerges from his relational discourse on the theological dynamic of church ontology (4:7-13).
For the ontological identity of the church to be of functional significance, it cannot be shaped or constructed by human terms from human contextualization. In Paul’s ecclesiology, the church in wholeness is the new creation by the whole of God’s relational response of grace (“was given grace”) from above top-down, the dynamic of which (“descended…ascended”) Christ relationally embodied to make each one of us together to be God’s whole (“he might fill all things,” pleroo, make complete, 4:7-10; cf. 1:23). This is the church in wholeness embodying the pleroma of Christ. In God’s relational response of grace, Christ also gave the relational means to church leaders for the dynamic embodying of the church (4:11), which Paul previously defined also as part of the Spirit’s relational involvement to share different charisma from the whole of God (not a fragmented source) for the functional significance of the church body (1 Cor 12:4-11). Paul illuminates this further to make definitive the functional significance of embodying of the church in relational likeness to the whole and holy God.
Church leaders are given the relational means for the purpose “to equip the saints” (katartismos from katartizo, to put into proper condition, to restore to former condition, make complete, 4:12). This holds church leaders to be the most accountable, since it directly points to the dynamic of transformed persons reconciled and relationally involved in transformed relationships together in relational likeness to God, and integrated in interdependence of the various church functions (“work of ministry”) necessary for the dynamic embodying (oikodome, 4:12) of the church’s whole ontology and function of “the pleroma of Christ” (4:13). This means unequivocally: For church leaders to be of ontological significance, their ontology must be defined by the wholeness of the new creation in the qualitative image of God from inner out, not defined by their gifts, resources or the roles and titles they have that reduce their persons to outer in; and for their leadership to be relationally significant as transformed persons, their function must be determined by agape relational involvement in transformed relationships together (both equalized and intimate) as God’s new creation family in the relational likeness of the whole of God, not determined by the titles and roles they perform (even with sacrifice) that make distinctions, intentionally or unintentionally creating distance and stratification in relationships together. The latter practices by church leaders renegotiate ecclesiology from bottom-up based on a theological anthropology from outer in. This certainly challenges the theology and practice of church leaders, yet, given the Spirit’s involvement, it also holds all persons in the church accountable for their person and relationships to be made whole. At the same time, those in theological education must account for their contribution to this condition.
In Paul’s transformed ecclesiology of wholeness, church leaders in reduced ontology and function are not transformed or living new in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, cannot katartismos others in the interdependence necessary to be of functional significance for embodying the church in relational likeness of the whole and holy God. Nor can they proclaim the experiential truth of the gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15). Only transformed leaders—whose persons are ongoingly being restored to the image and likeness of God (anakainoo, Col 3:10-11; cf. ananeoomai, Eph 4:23)—vulnerably involved in transformed relationships together with the Spirit can help make complete the saints—that is, katarismos emerges from integral interaction with anakainoo. Only whole leaders relationally serve to make complete the saints in the interdependence that is functionally significant for the church’s whole function, as Paul makes definitive and nonnegotiable in the following relational dynamic:
to dynamically embody (oikodome) the pleroma of Christ until all those relationally belonging to God’s family come to (katantao, reach, arrive) be together as one (henotes, unity), that is, whole in their relational response of trust in reciprocal relationship together and whole in specifically knowing (epignosis) the Son of God in intimate relationship, the relational outcome of which is persons who are whole-ly complete (aner teleios)—thus without distinctions (i.e. beyond aner)—in the qualitative depth (helikia, stature) of the pleroma (fullness, whole) embodied by Christ, therefore who together with the Spirit can embody the pleroma of Christ in functional significance of the relational likeness of the whole of God (4:12-13).
Paul is not outlining an ecclesial function of church growth models, missional models or any other ministry techniques of serving for the quantitative expansion of gatherings shaped or constructed by human terms. Paul is making definitive the theological paradigm for the whole function embodying the church’s ontology and function of who the church is and whose the church is as God’s new creation family in his qualitative image and relational likeness. This paradigm composes the theological dynamic of church ontology, whose function is entirely relational and whose whole ontology and function is the functional significance of just transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together in interdependence, the definitive paradigm especially for its leaders.
It is unequivocal in Paul’s transformed ecclesiology that the church in relational likeness of the whole of God is irreplaceable for the functional significance of its ontology and function. For the church’s ontology and function to be whole as God’s new creation family, it must (dei not opheilo) be the functional significance of both transformed relationships reconciled equally together and intimate interrelations integrated together in interdependence; and both of these are functionally significant only in agape relational involvement. Church whole relationships together are reconciled together by Christ with the Spirit, thus are by their nature irreducible; and the integrated relational outcome of church interdependence in relational likeness to the whole of God is nonnegotiable. Interdependent is how God created his new creation family, as well as created the whole human family in relationship together (cf. Gen 2:18) and integrated all of creation (cf. Col 1:20; Rom 8:19-21). Just as modern neuroscience affirms this interdependence and acknowledges the influence of reductionism to counter it, the whole ontology and function of the church embodies the functional significance of this new creation to fulfill the inherent human relational need and to solve the human problem—which neuroscience can merely identify without having good news for its fulfillment and resolution. Yet, the church in renegotiated ecclesiology is also without both the functional significance of the good news of what persons are and its relational significance of what persons can be saved to.
Renegotiated ecclesiology may be considered to be pragmatic by some of Paul’s readers, even a necessary reality for its survival in a surrounding context—which may include for a church to sustain its members or gain new ones.. On the other hand, pleroma ecclesiology may be perceived as “just theological” by his readers, perhaps an ideal not attainable in practice (as some perceive the Sermon on the Mount). Many of his readers may even argue that some of Paul’s prescriptions for the church (e.g. about women and slaves) appear to be pragmatic ecclesiology, thus that he either contradicted his theology or suspended its ideal. While there seems to be ambiguity in some of his church prescriptions, key to understanding the whole of Paul and the whole in his ecclesiology is the perception of what context Paul is speaking from, not the context he is speaking in and to. Renegotiated or pragmatic ecclesiology is based on human contextualization and shaped by human terms. Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology emerges from God’s relational context and process and is defined and determined by God’s terms through reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit—relational terms irreducible by the nature of the whole of God and nonnegotiable by the nature of the holy God down to referential terms reduced and fragmentary. In his prescriptions for the church, Paul is speaking from the relational context and process of God’s response to the human condition. Therefore, Paul’s prescriptions need to be seen in the strategic interest and concern for transformation, completeness, wholeness distinguished in pleroma ecclesiology, and his prescriptions must not be confused with or reduced to renegotiated ecclesiology for pragmatics. His prescriptions involve a tactical shift advocated by Paul that points to the strategic concerns of God’s whole new family on God’s terms to fulfill and complete God’s thematic relational response to the human condition.
The church is God’s new creation family that fulfills the inherent human relational need. The embodying of church ontology and function can be either reduced ontology and function based on the perception of pragmatics and/or a necessary reality—which by default becomes a disembodied gathering of Christ’s body that is derelationalized as relational orphans. Or the church’s embodying can be whole ontology and function constituted by being transformed from old to new as persons and relationships in the likeness of the whole and holy God, which composed Paul’s own experience first. Paul’s transformed ecclesiology makes the latter the functional imperative, not an obligatory moral imperative, by the nature of wholeness together being the only solution to the human problem that can fulfill the inherent human relational need. Moreover, by the nature of wholeness, transformed ecclesiology cannot be reduced in its ontology of the church or be renegotiated in its function of the church and still be distinguished having integrally the functional significance for the human problem and the relational significance for the inherent human need. This is the gospel of transformation to wholeness that Paul fought for without compromise, by which the church was constituted and in which it must be congruent for the church to claim ontological identity and relational belonging with the whole of God (Eph 2:14-22; 6:15). Unavoidably, Paul fought rigorously against any reduction of God’s whole, which then includes must church theology and practice today—making his transformed ecclesiology a source of tension and discomfort for us, either to dismiss, deny or respond to.
When Paul said “Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8)—hereby extending what and how Jesus distinguished his followers (Mt 5:14-16)—he gave both a functional imperative and a relational imperative for embodying the church. Here Paul is defining neither an obligation (as in duty, opheilo) nor a moral-ethical framework, as the context of this verse may suggest (particularly for women and slaves). Rather, Paul is further illuminating what is necessary (dei) by the nature of the ontological identity of who the church is and whose the church is—that is, the ontology of the church in wholeness of those relationally belonging in God’s new creation family. This is made necessary not by a theological construct of light but by the experiential truth of the Light in reciprocal relational involvement with Christ together with the Spirit, just as Jesus vulnerably disclosed (Jn 8:12) and relationally embodied in the whole ontology and function of his face (2 Cor 4:6). Paul makes definitive that in face-to-face involvement with Christ in relationship together, “you are light” (Eph 5:8) because God “has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6) to transform our ontology and function into the image and likeness of the whole of God (Eph 4:23-24; 2 Cor 3:18; 5:17; Col 3:10), and thereby now relationally belong to the family of the Light (1 Thes 5:5). For Paul personally, theologically and functionally, this is the experiential truth of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). On the basis of this experiential truth, therefore, Paul is decisive, that by the nature of the church’s new and whole ontology it is functionally and relationally imperative to “Live as children of the ontology of the light,” no longer in the old ontology and function of darkness. Paul is unequivocal because the church’s ontology in whole relationship together is the functional and relational significance of relationally belonging whole-ly in family ‘already’ as “children of light…not of darkness” in relational progression to ‘not yet’ (1 Thes 5:5, in its context of eschatological concerns).
The imagery of light and darkness is unlike a traditional dualism between good and evil. For Paul, light and darkness involve the dynamic of wholeness in ontology and function and the only alternative, reductionism, which is anything less and any substitute for wholeness. “Darkness” is both an ontological condition and a relational condition, the full significance of which cannot be limited to quantitative conditions or described simply as evil. Darkness-reductionism encompasses the prevailing ontology and function of human contextualization “in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Eph 2:2), that is, the counterproductive efforts (“unfruitful works”) of reductionism that need to be exposed, confronted and convicted (elencho, 5:11). This can only happen when light engages the darkness (5:13-14). Not to live in the ontology as light, however, is to diminish or minimalize the light by the influence of darkness, that is, by reductionism (cf. Mt 5:14-16), for which Paul makes epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction in order to embody the church’s whole ontology and function. The imperatives in Paul’s transformed ecclesiology are for the church to live whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms, in the midst of reductionism surrounding it, and to make whole any reductionism, both within itself and in the world. For Paul, in other words, the church is not to conform to a template but simply to be who they are and whose they belong to.
Paul illuminates the light in transformed ecclesiology because in Paul’s theological forest the light’s ontology and function emerged from the pleroma of God in pleroma Christology for pleroma soteriology with pleroma pneumatology to be embodied whole as the pleroma of Christ in pleroma ecclesiology. Furthermore, since these theological dynamics of the light in wholeness are clearly distinguished from any reduced ontology and function in darkness, the light’s whole ontology and function in church life and practice becomes more easily recognized in contrast to reductionism in darkness. The light’s contrast, however, presupposes whole ontology and function; otherwise, the church’s light can no longer claim to be different from reductionism, and thereby not be recognizable either within the church or in the world—as Jesus made conclusive for his followers’ ontology and function (Mt 5:14-16).
“You are light” supposes only an inner-out ontology (2 Cor 4:6; cf. metamorphoo, Rom 12:2) that cannot function from outer in to give just the appearance of light (cf. “angel of light” of reduced ontology and function, metaschematizo, 2 Cor 11:14). This is a critical distinction to account for in our church theology and practice. Paul clearly distinguished that the light constituted in these persons’ hearts illuminates the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature in the whole ontology and function of Christ’s face, therefore this light can only be whole ontology in likeness of God’s; and that light’s inner-out whole function can be at best only simulated by outer-in function from reductionism, as with “an angel of light” and “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15). Any outer-in simulations and illusions of light happen when light is disconnected from its source, because light is neither an energy nor ethereal and must not be disembodied and derelationalized from the Light. “In the Lord you are light” Paul said clearly. When Jesus disclosed his embodying of the light, he also made clear a contingency about light. Those who have his embodied light are determined by “whoever follows me” (Jn 8:12). This is not, however, a discipleship of merely following his teachings or example—which commonly get disembodied from his person—but of following “me, my whole person,” who embodied the pleroma of God only for relationship together (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10). For Jesus’ whole followers, this integrally involved engaging him in the primacy of the relationship together of his kingdom and the righteousness of God constituting the whole relationship of God in its innermost (thereby countering self-determination, Mt 6:33). On this integral relational basis, church leaders and any person wanting to serve Christ must first “follow me” in whole relationship together, as Jesus further made imperative in a paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26)—which Peter learned the hard way (Jn 21:22), and Paul points to (Eph 5:10).
In relational terms, Paul’s emphatic message is “you are light” only on the basis of your whole ontology from inner out, signified by the function of your heart whole-ly following Jesus’ whole person in reciprocal relationship together with the whole of God—distinguishing discipleship as the relational outcome of being transformed to wholeness. This defines our righteousness that necessarily determines the integrity of involvement in relationship together with God, whose involvement is determined by God’s righteousness—the way God engages in relationship. For the functional imperative “live as children of light” to be functionally significant, it must by its nature (dei), and not by obligation or duty (opheilo), be the embodying of whole relationship together as God’s new creation family (the primacy of his kingdom) in likeness of God (as his righteousness in relationship). Moreover, Paul conjoins other imperatives to support this primary one of embodying the whole ontology and function of the church: “discern, distinguish and determine [dokimazo] what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10); “Be careful then how you live both within the church and in the surrounding context…making the most of the time,” that is, exagorazo, “redeem from reductionism in these days of opportunity” (kairos, not chronos, 5:15-16); and most importantly, “be made complete [pleroo] with the Spirit” (5:18).
Paul is emphatic with these
imperatives in order for the embodying of church ontology and function
to be whole, as light in the darkness, in wholeness in the midst of
reductionism. He is also decisive because he never underestimates the
surrounding influence of reductionism (“the days exist in the sin of
reductionism,” 5:16), and the persistence of its author (6:16) and
its subtle presence within the church (2 Cor 11:14-15). Yet, he is not
pontificating about church life and practice and legislating
relationships together, nor does he prescribe anything less and any
substitutes of what the whole of Jesus relationally embodied for the
experiential truth of the whole gospel—the light of the gospel of the
glory of Christ’s whole ontology and function (2 Cor 4:4), the gospel of
wholeness (Eph 6:15). In his conjoint fight for this gospel and against
any and all reductionism, Paul is not apologetic about transformed
ecclesiology, nor does he allow his readers to compromise about being
complete, whole. The only embodying the Spirit raises up with the
embodied pleroma of God is God’s new creation family, the church,
the pleroma of Christ (Rom 8:11,14-15;
Wholeness is never optional in Paul’s ecclesiology. Wholeness is the basis for ecclesiology to be transformed, which is constituted by the embodied pleroma of God himself, who “is our wholeness…making wholeness…proclaimed wholeness” (Eph 2:14-18). Therefore, by the nature of God’s wholeness, church wholeness is irreducible in its ontology and nonnegotiable in its function. Transformed ecclesiology accounts for, signifies and constitutes nothing less and no substitutes. And for the church to live whole has inescapable implications for church life and practice.
With wholeness no longer being optional for the church and therefore no longer reducible in church life and negotiable in church practice, there emerge further implications for its ontological identity and relational belonging that are vital to understand for church life and practice. We need to embrace them in our churches today.
In Ephesians, Paul illuminates pleroma ecclesiology. Yet he was not engaging in a conventional theological task but, in contrast, the experiential truth constituting the heart of who the church is and whose the church is as the pleroma of Christ. In the either-or dynamic between wholeness and reductionism, there are ongoing valid distinctions to be made and maintained for the church to embody its ontological identity. His theological dynamic of church ontology (4:7-13) is prefaced by this concern (4:1-6). Part of his concern can be understood in the relational terms of the church not experiencing identity loss or even identity theft. Thus, Paul is engaging the church directly in God’s relational process of family love (from his earlier prayer, 3:18-19) for the transformed relationships together of ‘who the church is’ necessary to be ‘whose whole family they are’: “lead a life corresponding to [axios], in congruence with, the klesis to which you have been called” (4:1). Klesis can mean call or vocation, either of which signifies the identity of the church that needs to be clearly distinguished and ongoingly lived in correspondence, congruence (axios).
The implication here is that clarity of the church’s ontological identity depends on two dynamics that must be engaged: (1) making the functional distinction of the whole integrity of who and whose the church is in church life together, and (2) maintaining and ongoingly living this relational distinction of wholeness together both within itself and in the surrounding context—“making every effort…in the bond of wholeness…one body and one Spirit…one hope of your identity [klesis], one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:3-6).
Moreover, Paul was relationally involved with churches whose surrounding context was the dominant Greco-Roman world, within the pervading ancient Mediterranean world. The further implication is that making and maintaining the distinction of the church’s whole identity in these surrounding conditions necessitates having a minority identity—further extending the identity Jesus composed (discussed in depth in chap. 5; cf. Jn17:17-19). This minority identity signifies persons and persons together (“saints,” hagios, holy, uncommon, 5:3) who are not distinguished by the ordinary, common, normative practices of the surrounding context, that which Paul has been identifying and detailing as sins of reductionism—which Paul’s readers should neither limit to his specifics nor assume are the same for all surrounding contexts. Paul is not focused on moral purity and having a glorified status in an elite position with the notion of saints. A minority identity is hagios, uncommon, not common. Therefore, how the church lives in the surrounding context must not be with a bifocal identity (primary identity defined by human contextualization, secondary identity defined by God’s context), a hybrid identity (crossbreeding both), or with any form of pluralistic identity in mutual coexistence without the distinction of its ontological significance, that is, distinguishing its ontological identity in the whole of who and whose the church is. These identities are reductionist substitutes that cannot make and maintain the necessary distinction for the whole integrity of who and whose the church is. This distinguished identity of wholeness is easily lost or “taken” from the church (identity theft) in the common of the surrounding context, which is less about the Greco-Roman and ancient Mediterranean worlds and more about reductionism. This does not imply that the church’s ontological identity of wholeness is separated, isolated or disengaged from the surrounding context, but that how the church can be involved in it and maintain its primary identity is a function only of wholeness, which is a function of its relationships together in righteous likeness of God.
If the church does not conjointly make the functional distinction of the whole integrity of its ontological identity and ongoingly live the relational distinction of its wholeness in relationships together, the church no longer embodies the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family. The relational consequence is various forms of ekklesia, shaping gatherings not family, to which epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction are directed for the church’s wholeness within itself and in the surrounding context. The relational consequence of the loss of wholeness is not a conclusion Paul shaped from his own thought. Jesus already made conclusive the consequence for the new creation by mixing the new with the old (Mk 2:21-22; Lk 5:36-38). We cannot assume that we are immune from this relational consequence or that our church practice doesn’t already reflect it.
The ontological identity of God’s whole and holy family can only by its nature of wholeness be in congruence with its klesis (call and commission to be whole) when the church lives whole in the surrounding context in order to fulfill its relational purpose and function by making whole in the world. Anything less and any substitutes lack being distinguished for the three critical issues (discussed earlier) unavoidably involved in all church practice, for which each of its members in the body and members together are accountable, just as Paul himself accounted for in his own life and practice:
Paul simply illuminates further the consequence for God’s new creation family of mixing the new with the old that Jesus clearly defined for the new creation already, in which the reductionists perceive “The old is good or better” (Lk 5:39). It is unavoidable for the church and its members to give account of their practice in these three critical issues. As Paul continues on to make further imperative, this accountability is necessary both for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology to be light in the surrounding context and for the church’s ongoing function to be whole in order to “Live as children of light” (5:8ff).
In Paul’s transformed ecclesiology, God’s thematic relational response of grace, agape relational involvement and dynamic of wholeness (peace) converge only for this irreducible and nonnegotiable relational outcome:
to embody the ontological inner-out depth of church identity in the interrelated, interdependent and integrated function of who the church is together and whose family the church distinguishes, and on this integral relational basis and ongoing relational base to embody ‘already’ the new creation family of transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together for the whole ontology and function of the church—in nothing less than likeness of the whole of God.
This relational outcome emerged from Paul’s synesis of the theological dynamics of the whole of God (Eph 3:2-6)—from his involvement not in a theological task but in his oikonomia family responsibility to make complete the whole (pleroo) of God’s relational communication for his family (Col 1:25-28). Therefore, there are further implications inescapable for the church’s accountability.
Along with the implications for the church’s ontological identity are converging inescapable implications for the functional significance of relationally belonging to the church as God’s new creation family (Eph 2:14-16 in integral function with Col 3:10-11; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15). What unfolds in Paul’s theological development of pleroma ecclesiology go further and deeper, indeed well beyond, what many of Paul’s readers merely perceive as moral/ethical imperatives or household codes of collective life in the church while in the surrounding context. His transformed ecclesiology gets to the heart of the experiential truth of relationally belonging in God’s new creation family, the implications of which the church cannot avoid being accountable for to distinguish its experiential reality. They are simply as follows:
Therefore, the joint implication of being accountable already for the relational-functional significance of transformed relationships together is for the church to be making whole within itself and living whole in a new relational order of whole relationships together—which then distinguish the church to make whole the human condition in the world. These definitive relationships are the intimate relationships together in a new order that are without the determinacy of human distinctions from outer in and are equalized from inner out, and thus clearly in contradistinction with the reductionism of human contextualization that stratifies persons and relationships in a fragmentary condition. The church functioning intimately without human distinctions and as the equalizer may be perceived by Paul’s readers as a theological construct, whose ideal transcends pragmatic function in the real world. Without the Spirit that would be the reality. The reality also for pragmatism is a hybrid theology whose ecclesiology and anthropology lack wholeness, thus unable to heal persons and reconcile relationships struggling to be whole and relationally belong. In the relational dynamic of Paul’s theological forest, however, the pleroma of God relationally embodied nothing less than the whole ontology and function of God in order to embody with the Spirit nothing less than the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ, the church, to fulfill God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition. In this defining relational process of wholeness, the relational embodying of the church is whole-ly transformed into the qualitative image and the relational likeness of the whole of God—the relational outcome ‘already’ in fulfillment of Jesus’ defining prayer for his family. The experiential truth of this ontological identity for Paul is found in the congruence of the church’s identity to nothing less and no substitutes, regardless of its constituency or its situation in the surrounding context. On this integral relational basis and in these whole relational terms, the wholeness of relational belonging in the church is neither optional for church function nor negotiable to other church terms and shaping. The gospel of transformation to wholeness has no other relational significance and outcome for those claiming the gospel and for those hearing its proclamation.
Moreover, just as the whole of Paul experienced for himself, it is important to underscore that this relational-functional transformation to a new relational order in the church also requires a redemptive change in the church’s perceptual-interpretive framework and lens from outer in to the inner-out framework and lens—the new phronema and phroneo with the Spirit that Paul made definitive for “zoe and wholeness” (Rom 8:5-6)—necessary for the following: for the church to have the sensitivity of quality over quantity in its life and practice, and for the church to have relational awareness in its ontological identity and relational belonging. This relational awareness is dependent on the qualitative sensitivity that is inseparable from relational function in likeness of the whole of God, which Paul clearly distinguishes from reductionism (Eph 4:14-24). This integral interaction composes the primacy of the qualitative and the relational in the church’s ontology and function that by necessity involves the dynamic of wholeness. Accordingly, the church is accountable for all the imperatives and implications of pleroma ecclesiology in order to be transformed to wholeness together as God’s new family—accountability that extends to all of Paul’s readers (both in church and academy), who themselves may require a critical change in interpretive lens to pay attention to the whole of Paul (historical, relational and theological), and a basic change in interpretive framework to understand (syniemi for synesis) the whole in Paul’s theology.
“But now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” The clarity of the ontology and function of this identity is clearly distinguished only in the whole relationship together of the church’s ontology and function in likeness of the whole of God. The Spirit grieves over anything less and any substitutes—the grief from the vulnerable presence of the ontological One and intimate involvement of the relational Whole—whose sentiment necessitates the relational awareness from qualitative sensitivity for Paul’s readers to understand (Eph 4:30, cf. Isa 63:10). As Jesus’ relational replacement, the Spirit extended much greater the relational work of the whole of Jesus into Paul (as in Jn 14:12) in order for Paul to embody with the Spirit the kingdom of the whole of God’s whole family into the church in the primacy of its whole ontology and function in likeness of the pleroma of God (Rom 14:17). God’s face unmistakably shined on his family by the face of Christ and is illuminated in the new relationship together of wholeness embodying the church, the pleroma of Christ. This is the light that must be turned on in the church to distinguish its occupancy by God’s vulnerable and intimate dwelling (Eph 2:22).
How we practice church today is directly correlated to our ecclesiology, whether we knowingly have a defined ecclesiology or not. At the same time, how we practice church in actual function directly emerges from how we engage in relationships in general; and how we practice our relationships unequivocally unfolds from how we define our person and thereby define other persons, even God. Inescapably then, at the heart of our theology and practice of church is our theological anthropology, which defines and determines our person and the level of our relationships. In other words, our individual ontology and function shapes our relationships that shape the ontology and function of our church. Along the way, we make various assumptions in our theology and practice that obscure our perceptual-interpretive lens, whereby we may find ourselves on a different relational path from Jesus, perhaps maintaining a religious status quo without qualitative relational significance, or even reflecting, reinforcing or sustaining the human condition in our person and relationships. This would not be ironic for those today, who would identify as belonging to his Way and who claim to be his followers, but tragic.
These irrefutable correlations are why Jesus always pursued his followers in their theological anthropology, with epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction as usually needed. From the beginning the whole of God has pursued us for our person from inner out and in our relationships: “Where are you as a person?” (Gen 3:9) and “What are you doing here in your relationships?” (1 Kg 19:9). The church cannot be whole as God’s family without whole persons and whole relationships. Therefore, our discipleship and ecclesiology only become distinguished when their innermost ontology and function are the relational outcome of being transformed to the wholeness of what the whole of Jesus saves us to—indeed, nothing less and no substitutes.
“Did God really say that?”
 An expanded discussion of Paul’s life and theology is made in my study, The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010). Online: http://4X12.org.
 James Dunn raises this paradox about Paul as apostle of Israel and apostate from Israel that must be taken into account to fully understand Paul. See “Introduction” in James D.G. Dunn, ed., The Cambridge Companion to St. Paul (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003), 13.
 For a discussion of the reification of worldviews, religion and ideology, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: the History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-2, 178-80, 185-86, 236-38.
 For example, see John D. Zizioulos, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985); Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991); Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
 John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 248.
©2015 T. Dave Matsuo