The Global Church Engaging the Nature of Sin and the Human Condition
Reflecting, Reinforcing, Sustaining, or Transforming
Global Church Study
T. Dave Matsuo
©2016 TDM All rights reserved
No part of this manuscript may be reprinted without permission from the author
The World Today and Yesterday
Let the wholeness of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed
you were called in the one unfragmented body.
If you are familiar with a U.S. comic strip called “Dennis the Menace,” then you are aware that this frank little boy has a somewhat snobbish adversary named Margaret. She routinely tries to demonstrate her feminine superiority over the rawness and literal honesty of Dennis—implying that she is “better” in her maturity and he is “less” in his immaturity. In a recent episode, Margaret is reading a history book and snobbishly turns to Dennis to say “I bet you don’t know who ‘Joan of Arc’ was.” Dennis innocently reacts, “Yeah, she was Noah’s wife.”
This cartoon interaction, unfortunately, is less funny and more true, illustrating an existing reality in the global church. The underlying dynamic in their encounter unfolds in critical issues that are vital for the church to understand about itself and for Christians to address both individually and collectively as church together. Besides Margaret’s arrogance about her knowledge, her practice demonstrates defining her identity based on the limits of such outer-in criteria, quantified by the narrow referential information she possessed; and then she imposes this narrow measurement of the person onto Dennis not only to compare his person as less but also to determine their relationship in stratified terms (she’s better, he’s less). This dynamic parallels a dynamic in the global church, such that Margaret’s “theology and practice” is aligned to Christians/churches in the global North—perhaps giving priority to the quantity of theological knowledge from extra-biblical sources over the Bible itself (Joan of Arc over the Bible)—and the Western dynamic of imposing a dominant position onto the global South (mainly Africa, Asia, Latin America). Achievement in referential information and knowledge has become the prevailing distinction for theology and practice.
Not surprisingly, Dennis reacts to Margaret’s challenge and thereby engages in defining his own person by Margaret’s outer-in terms, plus further fragmenting their relationship by reinforcing her stratified terms. Moreover, not only did Dennis fail to answer Margaret’s challenge, his re-action (a reduced act of his person) was determined by a misuse of the Bible, which pointed to an incomplete, distorted and incorrect interpretation and understanding of Scripture (Noah’s wife indeed). The dynamic unfolding here for both Dennis and Margaret, and for those in likeness, is the influence of sociocultural factors constructing an interpretive framework and shaping an interpretive lens that perceives the human person from outer in and determines relationships on a narrow comparative basis. The reality evolving is in fact the following: from the beginning this underlying dynamic composes a theology (notably theological anthropology) and practice of persons and relationships in who and what they are and how they live with reduced ontology and function.
This critical dynamic in the global church also exposes the bias we bring to Scripture that narrows down God’s revelation and shapes it by our referential terms—for example, ignoring the priority of relational communication by giving primacy to extra-biblical sources. This shift transposes communication in relationship to the transmission of information. Moreover, this is the content reinforced and sustained by scholarship, which creates the theological fog making the global church unaware of its reflecting, reinforcing and sustaining a deeper condition.
While Dennis re-acts innocently enough and Margaret functions in common practice (in a global norm?), both are unaware of the underlying influence shaping how they function: reductionism and its counter-relational work. The prevailing issue for Christians and the global church to recognize and fully understand, and that needs to be ongoingly addressed, is the nature of sin operating in the dynamic of reductionism, and its inescapable influence composing the human condition, the global human condition—indeed our human condition. Apparently, the global church is also unaware of reductionism’s presence and influence shaping our theology and practice. As implied in this cartoon that’s not funny but of serious concern; what intrudes on and evolves in the global church is the existing reality of reductionism’s sin, which continues to be defining as long as the lack or absence of redemption from this human condition continues for the persons and relationships currently composing the global church.
Jesus saves! Yes, indeed, but from what, and for when, and to what outcome? This study addresses these issues in order to integrally identify the whole of the global church, so that the fragmenting effects of its theology and practice can be made whole from inner out at the heart of its persons and relationships in their ontology and function. Nothing less and no substitutes constitute the church family of Jesus Christ—whether locally, regionally or globally.
In the rising of globalization transforming modern societies, raising speculation about the sovereignty and autonomy of modern states, a further tide has arrived. This is the tidal shift that has changed not only the centers of global commerce, thought and power but also the center of Christianity. The shift in these matters from the West to the rest of the world has occurred, whether we like it or not. Accepting this irreversible change has been most difficult for the West, understandably so for the U.S., since it requires relinquishing old ways (notably of dominance) and embracing the new (namely of shared, equal or even greater partners).
Much has been recently noted about the central shift of Christianity from the Western context to the Majority World, namely the contexts of Africa, Asia, and Latin America composing the global South. This emerging tide from the global South has received increasing attention, if not always significant in substance, at least to note the numerical emergence forming a new majority in Christianity. Explicit or implicit tension, however, still pervades Western perception and thinking about what distinction should be given this part of the church—particularly in comparison to Western Christianity/church. I will only engage this part of the discussion in a secondary way, because I define the main issues focused on in this usually limited discussion as only secondary to what is primary to God and thus what needs to have primacy in the global church.
In this shifting tide of globalization sweeping over the world, there are converging currents that also bear upon Christianity for either its fragmentation or its transformation. Christianity in general and every Christian in particular are confronted with the challenge to change from old ways to new. First is the current of Western Christianity. Western Christians in the global North need to ask if they have developed, advanced and matured in the primary substance of their faith compared to Christians in the global South, or if they in reality have strayed from (cf. Ps 95:10; Rev 2:4), diluted (cf. 2 Cor 2:17; Rev 3:1) and thus reduced the truth-word of God (cf. 2 Cor 4:2; Rev 3:15). If global North Christians indeed embody maturity based on God’s terms, then we have something to teach global South Christians. If the current converging here, however, is the latter reality of reducing God’s word (even by evangelicals), then we have to learn from global South Christians and be restored, for example, to the experiential truth of the whole gospel.
Also converging on the central shift of Christianity to the global South are the strengthening currents of other world religions, notably Islam yet including Hinduism and Buddhism. This increasingly has come to bear on global South Christians in terms of persecution and other blatant forms of discrimination. Given these situations and circumstances, the global church is challenged, and yet, more importantly, is further confronted about its own theology and practice determining who, what, and how it is. What the church in both the North and South needs to ask of itself is the critical issue of its identity in the world: Is our church theology and practice simply of a religion and thereby having a distinction only in the comparative process with other religions; or is our church theology and practice distinguished in its identity beyond all religions because of its constituting basis in the whole and holy God distinguished beyond human contextualization, shaping and construction? This is not a doctrinal issue of dogma in referential terms but rather the crucial identity issue of who we are and whose we are in relational terms.
Jesus embodied his church to be transformed in its identity of both who it is and whose it is. This identity in the world must be neither shallow nor ambiguous, or else “the salt” has lost its substance and meaning and “the light” no longer has purpose and significance (Mt 5:13-16)—in spite of any ecumenical and inter-faith distinctions achieved. When Christian identity becomes shallow or functions ambiguously, it is more closely associated with other religions and less connected to its distinguished composing source, and thereby enters into a comparative process with those religions. This more-less dynamic is crucial to understand, which has a zero-sum effect on Christian identity.
The distinguished whole and holy God is beyond comparison to any human standards and measurement. Nevertheless, historically God’s people have consistently reduced God to human terms (e.g. Job 38:2); ironically, this includes even the idolization of God that honors a weaker or reduced being (connoting an idol), about which global South Christians in particular need to be cautious. This distinguished God, however, can only be known and understood if revealed/disclosed to us from beyond any human source—just as Job experienced and thereby understood in relational connection with the Source (Job 42:3-5). Otherwise, we are left to our speculations (however educated) and human shaping, which reduce Christian identity accordingly. When Christianity and Christian identity in the world have their basis composed by what the distinguished (pala) God reveals to them—“too wonderful (pala) for me to know”—then they also become distinguished (as salt and light) beyond what exists, pervades or prevails in human contexts. At the same time, being persecuted and discriminated against does not necessarily distinguish Christians on this relational basis. On the other hand, when Christians and churches become selective in receiving and embracing what God reveals—as Jesus made paradigmatic (Mk 4:24)—then they are narrowed down accordingly to simply a religion subject to measurement in comparative religions.
Selectivity of God’s words has been a defining issue for God’s family throughout its history, a diluting current resulting in a shallow and ambiguous identity in the world. For the global church to counter the converging influence (indeed, force) on its identity, it must be composed whole-ly on “the unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple” (Ps 119:130). Therefore, Paul made it the relational imperative for the church: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you whole-ly” (Col 3:16); and in order to be distinguished and not reduced to a comparative process, “Nothing beyond what is written in God’s Word” (1 Cor 4:6). Clearly then for us today, selectivity of God’s words (to be further discussed later) in the tide of globalization dilutes the identity of God’s family from being distinguished; and such a perceptual-interpretive lens continues to determine much of Christian practice (if not theology) by the converging currents from the surrounding contexts in the world, thereby narrowing down Christian witness to merely distinctions defined from reduced theology and practice.
So, what does distinguish the global church beyond the emerging tide and converging currents in which it lives and must function today? This is not an optional matter merely for discussion but a critical condition requiring urgent response for the well-being and wholeness of the global church’s integrity at the heart of its persons and relationships in whole ontology and function.
When the ‘Dennis the Menace’ interaction is seen in the bigger picture, it becomes more serious and true for the global church. The fragmented persons and relationship represented in that innocent scene reflect conditions that emerged from the beginning, which have since developed into common, conventional and, yes, innocent patterns. It is the bigger picture than globalization that the global church urgently needs to fully understand, because this is the only context that Christians and churches can and will find themselves in the experiential truth and relational reality of who they are and whose they are.
In the big picture, emerging in the beginning are whole persons created from inner out in the qualitative image of God, and further distinguished by relationship together in wholeness only in the relational likeness of God (Gen 1:27;2:18,25). Converging with this creation narrative is the fragmenting influence of reductionism and its counter-relational dynamic that reduces human ontology and function from the wholeness of who and what God created (Gen 3:1-7). The pivotal shift from wholeness to reductionism in persons and relationships precipitated God’s confronting question composed only in relational terms to expose persons and relationship together: “Where are you?” (Gen 3:8-9), which continues to resound to the global church today. In relational terms, while God’s question is inescapable, reductionism is unavoidable due to its persistent subtle workings in our midst.
The big picture includes God’s relational response of grace unfolding for the emergence of the covenant relationship of love (Gen 17:1-2; Dt 7:7-9). Covenant relationship together, however, can only be composed according to God’s terms for relationship, which by their nature must be in wholeness (tamiym, Gen 17:1) of ontology and function. Reductionism and its counter-relational workings converged on covenant relationship to transpose conjointly persons from inner out to outer in and relationship together from the intimate involvement of love to relational distance (as in Isa 29:13). Such function precipitated God’s confronting question in relational terms to further expose reduced ontology and function: “What are you doing here?” (1 Kg 19:9,13), which continues to resound to the global church today. These two key questions are important for us to account for, because they don’t expose isolated situations but are interrelated for the big picture.
This integral big picture is deeply enhanced for the global church when Jesus cleared out the temple of its reductionism of persons and relationships in a comparative stratified system (Mk 11:15-17), and reconstituted God’s dwelling place by his relational work on the cross (Lk 23:45) in order to make whole persons (regardless of human distinctions) and relationships (removing barriers) in intimate relationships together with the whole and holy God, face to Face (Heb 10:19-22; 2 Cor 3:16-18; Eph 2:14-22). Yet, converging with Jesus’s integral relational work in order to cloud the big picture and render its deep enhancement to a fog are attempts within the church to reconstruct Jesus’ theological trajectory (e.g. by Peter, Mt 16:21-23), and also to counter or reshape his intimate relational path (as Peter did, Jn 13:6-8). Also converging were attempts to reduce the primacy of reciprocal relationship together by replacing it with secondary ministries (such as to the poor, Mk 14:4-9) and long-standing traditions (Acts 10:13-15; Gal 2:11-14). Without the big picture in relational terms, those accounts become referential information of somewhat unrelated situations, which lacks understanding of their fragmenting consequence on the wholeness Jesus embodied and saved us to.
The reality of such attempts above reflects a perceptual-interpretive lens narrowed down by the influence of their surrounding contexts, which defined persons and determined relationships in fragmentary terms composed by reduced ontology and function. The relational consequences will not justify merely storing this information in our NT file, without examining their relational implications for our persons, relationships and churches. Once again, such function precipitated Jesus’ confronting questions in relational terms to further expose reduced ontology and function among even his followers in the church: “Don’t you know me yet, even after I have been among you such a long time?” (Jn 14:9, NIV), and in further vulnerable terms, “Do you love me, that is, with intimate relational involvement?” (Jn 21:15-17)—questions which continue to resound to the global church today in order to make unmistakable the irreducible and nonnegotiable primacy of relationship together in wholeness composing God’s family.
Understanding the big picture whole-ly enhanced by Jesus involves an integral relational epistemic process—syniemi (putting the pieces together for the whole), which Jesus exposed as the specific process that his disciples failed to engage with the pieces of Jesus (Mk 8:17-18). As Paul made further definitive for the church, understanding the big picture requires the whole knowledge embodied by Jesus’ person (not fragmentary information about this teachings) to compose whole understanding (synesis, Col 1:15-20; 2:2-3). Thus, Paul also raises the question to the global church about its theology and practice: “Has Christ been divided, fragmented, reduced?” (1 Cor 1:13). Nothing less and no substitutes compose the big picture, and anything less and any substitutes by the global church narrow down its identity in the world to practices by its persons and relationships in reduced ontology and function. Because of this tendency in the church, Paul made it a further relational imperative for the church: “Let the wholeness of Christ rule [be the only determinant] in your persons from inner out, to which indeed you were called in relational terms in one whole body integrated by intimate relationships together in likeness of Christ's wholeness, the Trinity” (Col 3:15).
This study will further discuss these issues, keeping these questions in the forefront for the global church—again, not as an optional matter but to evoke the urgent response necessary for the well-being and wholeness distinguishing the global church at the heart of its persons and relationships in whole ontology and function.
Along with the big picture framing our theology and practice, ‘who’ the global church has in common as the Object of its faith and worship should be a given. Perhaps this is an assumption that shouldn’t be made, yet I do in this study. Converging issues, however, clarify and correct what may or may not be shared together in the global church.
In terms of Who, we have to ask if the Who we share together is composed in referential terms or relational terms. Who in referential terms is narrowed down in ontology and function, and usually limited to the referential information composing our doctrines and teachings, and quite often constrained to merely an Object. In contrast, Who in relational terms is constituted by the whole ontology and function relationally disclosed by God as Subject—disclosed in God’s relational context and process with only relational terms—for the integral purpose of relationship together; accordingly, Who must be received as Subject and responded to as Subject in reciprocal relationship. If we profess that our God is a relational God present and involved, not a deistic God distant and uninvolved, then Who can only have the ontology and function as Subject. If we further claim to have relationship with God, then Who can be nothing less than and no substitute for Subject God; and Who’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement determines ongoing reciprocal relationship together only by the relational terms of Subject God. Anything less and any substitutes render Who to an Object in the relationship now shaped by our terms. Having God as the Object of our faith and practice becomes all to convenient, for example, either to remain less than vulnerable with our person and in our relationships, or to maintain our lifestyle shaped by the surrounding context—keeping us in our comfort zones and the security of the status quo. Any function as Subject requires more from us and holds us accountable ongoingly in the relationship, which is not subject to negotiation to our terms (whether individual or collective). These are crucial issues global North and South Christians need to face, both among themselves and between each sector.
Furthermore, Who the global church may or may not share together is also determined jointly by the What. That is to say, again in referential terms or relational terms, the What of God must be understood in terms of the whole and holy God. Since referential terms narrow down the epistemic field, What’s composition of Who God is becomes incomplete, based on fragmentary knowledge and information, thereby limiting What God is from being whole. What always qualifies the ontology and function of Who our God is as either the whole God without fragmentation or God who is reduced. In relational terms, God is only revealed in wholeness—whose epistemic field can only be engaged by the relational epistemic process made available by God—which composes the whole knowledge and understanding (syniemi, synesis, as above) embodying What God is, that is, Jesus integrally embodying the Who and What of the whole God (as in 2 Cor 4:6; Col 1:19; 2:2). Therefore, any reduction of Jesus’ person to referential terms that fragment him in to parts—for example, of his teaching or serving—also reduce the ontology and function of God. A complete Christology is necessary for the global church in order to share together in the whole of God.
If the God we share together is indeed whole and not fragmentary, the What of God is also inseparable from the holy God. This is not a minor theological nuance but an ontological distinction of immeasurable significance for our theology and practice. ‘Holy’ is one of those Christian terms (along with faith and grace) that has had variable meaning or perception among God’s people, and that has increasingly lost its significance as a relational term despite the global church having the holy God in common in referential terms. In the big picture, holy (qadash, Gen 2:3; Ex 31:13) means to be set aside and consecrated to God, not about just being pure. This relational process is constituted by the holy God, Who is certainly pure and What is indeed whole. Yet, what distinguishes the holy God is that God is pala and beyond any comparison measured in human terms—beyond what is ordinary or common to human contextualization. The What of God is uncommon, Who is affirmed by philosophical theology yet unfortunately defined in referential terms as ‘the unknowable God’. In relational terms, the Uncommon intruded into the context of the common to be known and understood for the uncommon purpose of relationship together with the holy God. What as Uncommon and Who as Subject, however, require uncommon terms for relationship together in order to compose compatible reciprocal response from no ordinary subjects—that is, from persons whose ontology and function are not defined and determined by what is common to human contextualization, but rather who are transformed to the uncommon constituted only by, with and in the whole and holy God. Otherwise, the uncommon God and common humans are incompatible for relationship together, even if they are members of the church. Certainly then, uncommon terms for relationship are irreducible to referential terms and nonnegotiable to human terms, which holds us accountable for what God we share together and challenges our assumptions about this God central to the global church.
Unfolding from the uncommon theological trajectory and intrusive relational path of Jesus, the global church embodied by Jesus, together with the Spirit, shares together uncommonly in reciprocal relationship together with the whole and common God—as the whole of God’s uncommon family transformed in ontology and function integrally in the qualitative image of the Uncommon and the relational likeness of the Whole. Anything less and any substitutes in our theology and practice reduce God to the common and thus fragment persons and relationships to the common condition in their surrounding contexts—which the global church seems to reflect, reinforce or sustain rather than transform. If this commonization is true, it needs to be responded to by the church in both the North and the South with the highest priority and deepest concern.
The most critical issues converging on this whole process are pivotal for what the global church may or may not share together, and yet still have in common. Unequivocally and unmistakably, what is common to any and all sectors of the church—regardless of geography, culture, race and ethnicity, and socioeconomic status—is the nature of sin and its outworking that determines the human condition. This commonality existing in the global church has been neither understood adequately nor responded to sufficiently, therefore it has been consequential for the integrity of Christian whole theology and practice and church whole ontology and function. The nature of sin defined by the presence and influence of reductionism, and its outworking determined by reductionism’s counter-relational work, for example, has had ongoing consequences on gender, class, age, along with race-ethnicity and other human distinctions. Part of the current discussion on the significance of Christianity in the global South evidences the lack of fully understanding such distinctions in terms of the nature of sin as reductionism. While moral and ethical judgments of distinctions may be made—for example, about race or caste—what is still lacking is the whole understanding needed to get down to the deeper significance of persons and the relationships required to be whole and uncommon. When we get down to this underlying relational basis, persons and relationships emerge who have significance to the whole and uncommon God.
Moreover, another related commonality easily existing throughout the global church involves the following: The significance of the theology and practice in the church—in both the global South and North without singling out either—is an open question that strains to be distinguished from the nature of sin as reductionism due to its quantitative referential influence shaping a reduced theological anthropology of persons and relationships, which then essentially reflects, reinforces or sustains the fragmentation defining the human condition. Reduced ontology and function of persons, relationships and the church are not readily recognized by a common perceptual-interpretive lens; and this is consequential of the dynamic of reductionism underlying much of the theology and practice in our midst, the subtle consequences of which are immeasurable.
Again with the highest priority and deepest concern, Christians and the church need to talk about sin in its breadth and depth. Yet, to engage this dialogue, our understanding of sin needs to go beyond the limits of ethical and moral terms. Sin didn’t emerge from the beginning as mere ethical and moral failure; and how sin composes the human condition cannot be narrowed down to ethical and moral language. Our engagement, therefore, may challenge our assumptions and, indeed, may make us vulnerable to our own condition needing to be changed. Without this engagement, we may unintentionally reflect, reinforce and sustain this condition rather than transform it.
These are the primary and pivotal issues that need to intensify the concern of the global church and compel a single-minded response. Christians in God’s whole family are accountable to vulnerably address what is primary to God over the secondary—turning from our occupation, even preoccupation, with the secondary, as necessary—and thereafter to integrate the secondary into the primary. This study proceeds reciprocally with the Spirit on this relational basis, with this relational purpose, and for this relational outcome.
So, whether you are from the global North or South, perhaps beyond, if you profess the relational God present and involved and if you claim to have relationship with this God, then the whole and holy God pursues us for answers in reciprocal relational response to his questions:
“Where are you in your person and relationships?”
“What are you doing here in your theology and practice?”
“Don’t you know and understand me yet, even after all your learning, knowledge and information?”
“Do you love me with intimate involvement in reciprocal relationship together?”
And in further pursuit of our theology and practice:
“Has Christ been divided, fragmented, reduced in your Christology, ecclesiology and discipleship?”
These are ongoing questions for each of us because that’s how the Who and What of God is in relationship with us. Therefore, we can always count on the righteous God to be nothing less and no substitute! May this study be helpful for our reciprocal response to be compatible to God’s, such that the whole and uncommon God can also count on us to be whole and uncommon in relationship together as God’s global church family. And so that the persons, relationship and churches composing the global church will be distinguished to function ongoingly for the transformation of the human context, rather than remain within the limits and constraints of common function that would only reflect, reinforce and sustain the human context’s prevailing condition.
 Unless indicated differently, all Scripture is taken from the NRSV; any italics in the Scripture throughout this study signify emphasis or further rendering of terms.
 Created by Hank Ketcham, Los Angeles Times, 12/1/2014.
 This analysis of the process of globalization is discussed is undertaken by David Held, Anthony McGrew. David Goldblatt and Jonathan Perraton, Global Transitions: Politics, Economics and Culture (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999). See also, Peter Heslam, ed., Globalization and the Good (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004).
 For further discussion on this global change, see Kishore Mahbubani, The New Asian Hemisphere: The Irresistible Shift of Global Power to the East (New York: Public Affairs, 2008).
 For example, see Philip Jenkins, The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), idem, The New Faces of Christianity: Believing the Bible in the Global South (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).
 Greek and Hebrew word studies used in this study are taken from the following sources: Horst Balz, Gerhard Schreider, eds., Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990); Colin Brown, ed., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, 3 vols. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1975); R. Laid Harris, Gleason L. Archer, Jr., Bruce Waitke, eds., Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 2 vols. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1980); Ernst Jenni, Claus Westermann, Theological Lexicon of the Old Testament, trans. Mark E. Biddle, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997); Gerhard Kittel, ed., Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, 10 vols. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974); Harold K. Moulton, ed., The Analytical Greek Lexicon Revised (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978); W.E. Vine, Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words (New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1981); Spiros Zodhiates, ed., Hebrew-Greek Key Word Study Bible (Chattanooga: AMG Publ., 1996).
©2016 T. Dave Matsuo