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The Global Church Engaging the Nature of Sin

and the Human Condition

Reflecting, Reinforcing, Sustaining, or Transforming 

Section I   The Fragmentary Human Context Shaping the Church

 

Chapter 2                      Listening to Sin

 

Sections

 

Listen from the Beginning

Continuing to Listen

Listening to the Word

Listening to History

Listening to Key Words for Church History

Listening to What Unfolds

The Most Recurring Theme

 

Ch 1

Ch 2

Ch 3

Ch 4

Ch 5

Ch 6

Ch 7

Ch 8

Ch 9

Ch 10

Printable pdf

of entire study

Table of Contents

Scripture Index

Bibliography

 

You will not be reduced or fragmented.

Genesis 3:4

 

Therefore, consider carefully how you listen.

Luke 8:18, NIV

 

Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you use will be the measure you get.

Mark 4:24

 

 

            With the wave of technology sweeping over the globe, the Internet and social media have amplified communication to increasing quantitative levels that is shrinking the world and reshaping its cultures in how persons behave. The heightened intensity in this new(er) process of human engagement creates “noise” (too much activity, overstimulation, information overload, overly distracted brains), which significantly has reduced both the quality of our listening and the depth of our relational connections. This impact occurs not only in individualistic cultures but also in collectivist cultures (such as in East Asia) as the digital age takes hold—anxiously causing, for example, China to enforce strong constraints on Internet usage to control access that could result in political consequences. Whatever the exposure and response to cyberspace, whether in the global North or South, there is and has been a growing disconnect in relationship as persons become further fragmented.[1]

            Yet, there is more than technology that is causing changes in human behavior. There are deeper areas of human life that we need to listen to, which engage us beyond technology. Underlying the shape and reshaping of culture are deeper influences and causes for either individualistic cultures or collectivist cultures, some of which they have in common. For example, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky reports on studies showing that what region persons live in a particular country can alter how a person thinks contrary to their culture. This is demonstrated in a specific context by how rice farmers in China epitomize their collectivist culture, whereas wheat farmers in China live as in an individualistic culture characteristic of the West—not due to technology or Western influence but from the structure of each farming system. The main point Sapolsky highlights in this “is simply to make us marvel at the subtlety of the factors that shape us.”[2]

            Beyond technology, and apart from its noise in our lives, we need to listen carefully and pay attention to the subtle factors that shape us. The most consequentially factors are those that reduce the quality of human life, most notably by fragmenting persons and relationships, both of which have resulted from technological engagement yet have more subtle causal factors than that. The most subtle factor converging with the global church to shape its theology and practice, and thereby to reduce the quality of its life and fragment persons and relationships embodying the church, is reductionism and its counter-relational workings. Perhaps the Internet and social media engagement are only its most apparent symptom. What distinguishes the global church, however, is not currently apparent, because only the church’s persons and relationships together in whole ontology and function composing whole theology and practice can distinguish the global church from the subtlety of reduced ontology and function and fragmentary theology and practice shaped by reductionism. The subtlety of reduced and/or fragmentary factors shaping us—notably defining persons and determining relationships with a reduced theological anthropology and an incomplete gospel—is never apparent unless we listen carefully and pay attention to the subtle presence of reductionism and understand its subtle influence.

            Listening carefully could be more problematic for global North Christians, whose individualistic cultures and Western functional dominance and theological prominence imply ‘speaking over listening’. At the same time, paying attention could be problematic for global South Christians, whose cultural lens may make too many assumptions that readily accept and thus easily ignore subtleties. Evil, for example, would likely draw the attention of global South Christians more than their counterparts in the North, yet the subtlety of reductionism could readily be accepted or ignored (e.g. like the spirit world, even variations of magic). Contextual differences and variations must be accounted for in theology and practice. Simon Chan points in this direction to make a reasonable case for grassroots theology in Asian Christianity.[3] Yet, unless it is understood what persons (at whatever level) in a particular culture listen to, and what is paid attention to or ignored and why, it is problematic knowing ‘what shapes who’ and ‘who shapes what’. Without making clear the subtlety of these distinctions, any theology and practice is unable to be distinguished beyond the common shaped by the surrounding context—in spite of good grass-roots intentions.

            In other words, how we listen and what we pay attention to or ignore are both shaped by our surrounding contexts. And human contextualization cannot be the primary determinant for the global church—as Paul made imperative for the church (Col 3:15-16)—or its theology and practice are rendered subject to the shaping influence of reductionism. This is why Paul’s fight for the whole gospel composing the global church required conjointly (inseparably and equally) his fight against reductionism, so that the global church would not be fragmented and its theology and practice fragmentary—as he demonstrated against Peter and the like (Gal 2:11-14; 5:6; 6:15).

 

 

 

Listen from the Beginning

 

            The subtle presence and influence of reductionism emerged from the beginning, although the narrative account in the primordial garden usually has not been interpreted and understood in the underlying depth of its subtlety. Christians in the global church, notably we in the North, need to listen to sin from the beginning; and on this definitive basis we all in the church together need to pay attention to how it has converged with and emerged in the global church to shape us today—not for a referential purpose “to make us marvel at the subtlety” (as Sapolsky said above) but for the relational purpose to make us whole.

            In our theology and practice, when we start wondering “Did God really say that?” we urgently need to listen carefully to what’s emerging and pay close attention to its counter-relational work seeking to influence. It is understandable, and necessary, to want to know what God said, and further to understand what God means by those words. Yet, there is a conflicting difference between letting God speak for himself and speaking for God—a subtle conflict of interest (especially by teachers in the church and academy) that we don’t pay close attention to and thus which has shaped much theology and practice, past and present, in the global North and South.

            Whether the account in the primordial garden (Gen 3:1-13) is seen as history or allegory, God wants us to listen from the beginning and pay attention to the experiential reality of what ongoingly opposes the whole of God, and that seeks every opportunity to interfere, disrupt and disconnect the relational words of communication from God in order to diminish and minimalize relationship together with the whole and holy (uncommon) God. The seemingly innocuous issue raised by “Did God say that?” quickly transitioned into the underlying issue of speaking for God and redefining what God meant and intended with those words: “You will not be reduced, for God knows…your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (vv.4-5). Defining what God means and intended has been a hermeneutic issue—particularly pervading the global North academy—which has resulted in various theories and conclusions subtly causing fragmentation of God’s words and reduction of what is primary and thus significant to God: this primary significance is only relationship together in wholeness that both defined what is good and was determined in God’s relational likeness (Gen 1:27; 2:18).

            The initial question raised by Satan needs to be heard beyond a mere query but must by the nature of its source be listened to in its subtle challenge, and thereby paid attention to for its underlying dynamic: promoting a conflict of interest (speaking for God, “For God knows…”) in order to subtly compose human identity with epistemological illusion (“your eyes will be opened”) and ontological simulation (“you will be like God”); all based on the underlying assumption that “you will not die,” that is, be reduced and fragmented, but will achieve the highest distinction “knowing good and evil.” The appeal of this subtle challenge intensifies when human identity is measured by terms composed in a comparative process—a process fragmenting persons and stratifying relationships. What unfolds from this challenge is not ‘an eye opener’ but rather ‘an eye changer’.

            All Christians are subjected to this challenge and its underlying dynamic. Whether we become subject to it is contingent on how we listen and what we pay attention to. Even when neither explicit nor intended, speaking for God has an appeal that is undeniable and often irresistible—particularly when we want answers or need explanations in our situations and circumstances, just as Job demonstrated (Job 42:3-5). Moreover, when you add self-determination (even among collectivists) to the equation determining human identity, a pivotal paradigm shift emerges that transposes human persons and relationships from the whole of inner out (“they were both naked vulnerably from inner out and not ashamed of their wholeness in relationship together,” Gen 2:25) to the reduction of outer in. This pivotal shift unfolds as it subtly changes the perceptual-interpretive lens of persons and relationships to fragmentary parts. With this fragmenting lens, these persons explicitly or implicitly “saw that it was good…a delight…to be desired for self-determination.” Such persons who don’t listen to reductionism and pay attention carefully to its counter-relational work readily engage, even unintentionally, to “partake of the fruit of self-determination…then, with the consequence of a lens narrowed down to outer in, persons only saw their fragmentary parts that they hid from each other, causing relational barriers to relationship together” (Gen 3:6-8). Therefore, they went form ‘good to be whole together’ to “good to be apart from wholeness” (2:18), engaged in a reductionist process entrenched in a comparative system inevitably needing self-justification—“the woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me the fruit of self-determination and I participated” (3:12).

            What we are witnessing is the reduction of human ontology and function from the wholeness that only God determines. Given this account of what emerged from the beginning, it is inadequate to define the Fall as merely disobedience to God. Nor is it sufficient to define sin merely as moral or ethical failure. We can attribute this limited view and narrowed-down lens to the genius of Satan, who promotes epistemological illusions and ontological simulations as the outworking of reductionism—and whom Jesus exposed as “the father of lies” (Jn 8:44) and Paul fought against in the church disguised “as an angel of light…as ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15). Reductionism is indeed a force to contend with, yet most pervasively a subtle force that often eludes our recognition or detection.

            The subtlety of this primal challenge to wholeness from the beginning, its underlying assumption of not being reduced or fragmented, and its pivotal paradigm shift have not been listened to as the reductionism defining the nature of sin, nor paid attention to as determining the ontology and function of persons and relationships pervasive (if not prevailing) in our midst. The subtle influence of reductionism, therefore, has notably shaped much of our theology and practice as follows:

 

Narrowed down with a reduced theological anthropology composing fragmentary persons and relationships, with an incomplete Christology lacking the wholeness of Christ, with a truncated soteriology without what Jesus saved us to ‘already’, and thus without the whole gospel embodied by the whole and uncommon God, and therefore without the whole ontology and function necessary for the global church to be God’s intimate relational dwelling equally with all peoples both South and North.

Anything less and any substitutes in our theology and practice, whether intentional or not, always mean the imprint of reductionism exists as an experiential reality, for which we can no longer avoid being accountable.

            When we don’t listen to sin as reductionism and pay attention to its subtle counter-relational work, the best we will be able to say to God’s question “Where are you?” is “The subtlety of reductionism tricked me” (Gen 3:13, “deceived me,” NIV). However, God holds us accountable to listen from the beginning and pay attention—not only to sin but also to God speaking for himself and “the unfolding of your words gives light, it imparts understanding to those listening
(Ps 119:130).

 

 

 

Continuing to Listen

 

            Any discussion of sin—if and when it emerges at all in our conversations—has been inadequate and needs to get to sin’s breadth and depth. Since sin didn’t emerge in the beginning as mere ethical or moral failure, we need to continue to listen to how sin composes the human condition beyond the limits of ethical and moral language. In addressing the human condition in this respect, there are even times when it appears that ethics is secondary (yet not unimportant) to the primacy of wholeness for persons and relationships, which mere ethical action is insufficient to bring about (e.g. Jesus’ forceful clearing of the temple to make it whole, Mk 11:15-17, Jn 2:13-17). If we don’t fully understand what composes the human condition, then we can in fact be reflecting, reinforcing or even sustaining the human condition rather than transforming it.

            In the creation narrative, God made a definitive statement about the human person that we need to listen carefully and pay close attention to: “It is not good for the human person to be alone” (Gen 2:18, NIV). What is “good” (tob), however, is not about the work that God gave human persons to do (2:15, cf. Ecc 2:24; 3:22). It may appear that God is focused on the work as the primary purpose for which another human person was created, “a helper” (discussed further in chap. 3). This is where we need to listen more carefully and pay even closer attention to God’s relational language, not referential language. To emphasize “work” (abad, term also for service) as the primary concern of God would both redefine how God defines the person and invert the primary priority of God’s created design and purpose for human persons.

            “To be alone” evokes different perceptions in an individualistic culture and a collectivist culture, thus what would be considered “not good” would vary. For example, while to be alone may not be a primary value in the U.S., it is an increasing practice among younger generations and less considered ‘not good’. Whereas to be alone is not good in a collectivist culture, it may actually become highly valued implicitly by those wanting to have a further sense of identity as a person. This renders what is good (tob, correct, righteous, right, virtue) to the shaping from our surrounding contexts, which then reduces the practice of good to human determination according to their situations and circumstances (e.g. situation ethics). “To be alone,” however, is only one side of the coin, and, though prominent, it is a misleading side until the other side is grasped.

            The Hebrew term in “to be alone” (bad) can also be rendered “to be apart.” This rendering gives a deeper sense of relationship and the significance of not being connected to another person, which is the significance of God’s words in relational terms over merely referential terms. The distinction of this side of the coin is vital to make and critical to pay attention to in our theology and practice. For the human person in the beginning, it was not just the secondary matter (however important) of having no one to share space with (“not to be alone”), no one to keep him company (“as his partner”), or to do things with (particularly the work as “a helper”). Even though important, all those matters are secondary to God and the primacy constituting human persons in the beginning. Unlike “to be alone,” “to be apart” is not just a situational condition but most importantly a relational condition, that is, the relational condition composing the human condition. A person can (and commonly does) be alone in a situation but also experience some degree of loneliness in the company of others, often at church, even in a family (extended or nuclear) or marriage, and notably in a collectivist culture, because of existing relational distance—“being apart.”

Yet, isn’t this relational distance to be expected, and is it not unreasonable to expect more relational connection, given the situations and circumstances of most persons? Yes and no. Yes, this is the norm for the human condition, which we can continue to ignore and allow to have primary determination of our person and relationships. No, if we listen and pay attention to God’s created design and purpose for human persons and why it is not good, correct, right for any person (regardless of situations, circumstances or human distinction) “to be apart.”

            What is often overlooked or ignored in the creation narrative results in our person and relationships becoming fragmentary: “to be apart” from the wholeness of God’s creation—namely, but not solely, apart from the wholeness of persons from inner out and of relationships together (“both naked and were not ashamed”). In spite of the responsibility of work to be done from creation, what the person needed had little to do with help for work but everything concerned with the primacy of his whole ontology and function—the distinguished quality that work can neither provide nor fulfill. This concern (“It is not good”) was God’s focus, response and whole provision for the human person in the irreducible design and nonnegotiable purpose to be whole persons in intimate relationship together in the image and likeness of the whole of God. Anything less and any substitute for persons and relationships—for example, making work, serving, even ministry primary over God’s primacy—render them to be apart from wholeness, reduced to the fragmentary terms composing the human condition. This is the consequence to be expected and the limits and constraints determining what will emerge for persons and relationships in the global North and South, whenever reductionism converges with God’s created whole and allowed to have its influence.

            In the beginning human persons clearly already knew good (tob) composed by the wholeness from inner out in which God created persons and relationships—“they were naked whole-ly from inner out and were not ashamed, confounded, disappointed, disgrace or deceived” (all connoting bos, Gen 2:25). Sadly, they also experienced what is bad, of inferior quality, signifying the term for evil (ra’) that was predicted for them, yet not at the comparative level promised (“be like God, knowing good and evil,” 3:4). Therefore, it is never good, correct, right, beautiful, righteous (all signifying tob) to be apart from God’s whole.

            These are the words unfolding from the beginning—which “gives light and imparts understanding…” (Ps 119:130)—that God speaks for himself and requires us to listen carefully to, and the sin of reductionism that God necessitates for us to pay close attention to. Based on God’s created design and purpose, tob is neither negotiable to human terms nor relative to our surrounding contexts, cultures or other such influences, thus making us accountable to be whole, live whole and make whole the human condition existing both in the church and in the world. And if we’re listening and paying attention, this is the human condition subtly composed by reductionism and its counter-relational work—composed in the modern world with increasingly complex measures (such as technology simulating relational connection and creating illusions about it) that we uncritically assume “will not be reducing and fragmenting.”

 

           So, “Where are you in your person and relationships?” is God’s ongoing concern for and pursuit of those composing the global church. Remember, the covenant relationship with God is engaged only by wholeness (tamiym, Gen 17:1)—the wholeness constituting our creation and further composing God’s definitive blessing on us, his family (shalom, Num 6:24-26)—which Jesus embodied for us in relationship together beyond what’s common (Jn 14:27), and thereby that Paul made the relational imperative for the global church (Col 3:15). Therefore, God is further concerned and pursues us for “What are you doing here in our covenant relationship and in my church family?”

 

 

 

Listening to the Word

 

            The tension and conflict between God’s whole and reductionism are ongoing. What should be apparent if we pay close attention is often not practiced due to making the uncritical or sweeping assumption that “you will not be reduced or fragmented.” The subtlety of reductionism’s challenge of the whole emerged from the beginning when the person’s focus was prompted to shift from the whole to the parts (“eat from any tree,” Gen 3:1). The shift in our focus to the parts in itself is only significant if it becomes a substitute for the whole, and thus replaces the primary with what is only secondary at best. Moreover, discussion of the parts could make clear reference to the whole, or the sum of the parts may simply be assumed to equal the whole. Thus, the distinction between the whole and the parts is critical to make and indispensable for our theology and practice to either be whole or be fragmented into parts, the latter of which, at best, can only simulate God’s whole.

This is where the process of reductionism can become obscure because logic and reason blur the line between the parts and the whole to confuse the issue of what determines the whole of God (or God’s whole as the church) and how to perceive God’s whole (both the Trinity and the person, individually and corporately, created in the triune God’s image). This process is crucial to address because it forms the basis for who will determine what and what will determine whom. This then is about the issue of causation—a subtle issue specific to Christian practice—which involves either the effect of the whole of God on persons (top-down causation) or the effects of Christian behavior on the whole of God (bottom-up causation).[4] While Christian practice tends not to be either-or but a combination, the critical issue to resolve is who gets the primary function and who has only a secondary function, including how they will functionally interact together. Reductionism gives primary priority to the parts over the whole—an influence not always indicated in our theology but witnessed in our practice. Reductionism is further evident when the secondary becomes the focus over the primary, which directly emerges from a narrowed-down lens that is often preoccupied with the secondary.

Conjointly, reductionism’s counter-relational work always involves human persons determining relationship with God on their terms in contradiction to God as sole determiner of the terms for the relationship. This happens in the functional practice of one’s beliefs, not necessarily reflecting the beliefs themselves. How this gets ambiguous is when the outward forms and practices of those terms appear similar, yet in function are qualitatively different from God’s terms—the crucial distinction between our referential terms and God’s relational terms. This becomes clearly distinguished later when the embodied Word was also challenged in summary tests by Satan (Lk 4:1-13).

When we don’t listen carefully to God’s words unfolding in relational terms over referential terms and don’t pay close attention to subtle challenges narrowing down God’s words to a limited epistemic field and process shaped by human contexts, then the trajectory of our theology and the path of our practice have a lack of clarity. Clarity is only distinguished by God’s relational terms—“gives light and imparts whole understanding”—which referential terms cannot provide no matter the amount of knowledge, level of scholarship, or the extent of belief and degree of conviction. The lack of relational clarity renders our theology to ambiguity and our practice to shallowness—conditions describing the presence of fog—which Jesus exposed in order to clearly distinguish the identity of his followers (Mt 5:13-16).

            The created order of life in likeness of the relational God was constituted in the beginning by God’s irreplaceable relational terms. Human persons and relationships were constituted in the distinguished relational context and relational process of the whole and holy God, and since the beginning they are composed whole only in God’s irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process. Ever since, this whole process has also been taken out of this primary relational context to reshape persons and relationships in a fragmenting process narrowed down to their parts—primarily secondary parts from outer in composed by referential terms over the primacy of God’s whole relational terms. Certainly, yet not obviously, the ongoing issue of who determines what and what determines who needs clarification, if not correction, in our theology and practice. The need is urgent because the integrity of God’s whole and the interrelated reality of our wholeness otherwise is subject to reductionism—a condition needing redemption and transformation, which referential terms can only refer to at best. For this purpose, God’s question (“Where are you in your persons and relationships?”) emerges in the human context only in the significance of relational terms and only for the relational reality of this relational outcome.

            To further distinguish the relational outworking of God’s relational response of grace to the human (our) condition, and thereby also fulfilling God’s definitive relational blessing (Num 6:24-26), God’s relational context and process has been whole-ly embodied by the face of Christ (Col 1:15-20; 2 Cor 4:6), and by his vulnerable relational terms further unfolded in the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. Yet, expectedly, at least for those who listen carefully and pay close attention, reductionism also extended and intensified its counter-relational work both in the church and its surrounding context (2 Cor 2:17; 4:2-4; Col 2:4, 8-10).

            Listening and paying attention to the Word was an ongoing issue that Jesus addressed, and continues to be an ongoing issue today that global North and South Christians need to address further and deeper. Yet, how this issues is addressed will determine if it indeed goes deeper. Listening is primarily a relational issue, shaped by our perceptual-interpretive lens. What we pay attention to and ignore depends on our lens, which also involves a hermeneutic issue composing our perceptual interpretive framework in primary relational terms or secondary referential terms.

            At the pivotal point in the incarnation when Jesus’ person was whole-ly illuminated as embodying God (known as the transfiguration, Mt 17:1-5), the Father gave the relational imperative to his followers “This is my Son…listen to him” (17:5). The transfiguration highlights persons in relationship together, not a referential event (as Peter reduced it to, v.4). The Father’s relational imperative focused only on the person and highlighted the person’s relational significance to compose the promised, expected and now fulfilled relational outcome. Listening to the Word is not about listening to referential teachings, but rather listening to the whole of the Word unfolding: Jesus’ whole person embodying the whole of God’s relational context and process that integrally constitutes the distinguished theological trajectory of God’s vulnerable presence and God’s uncommon relational path of intimate involvement in relational response to the human condition only in whole relational terms.

            In other words, the embodied Word is composed by and composes only relational language in relational terms; and listening is problematic notably when heard (read) and received in referential language and terms. This means that listening to the Word jointly requires listening to sin as reductionism, which must include the following: paying attention to what counters the relational wholeness of the Word, and reductionism’s attempts to fragment the Word into parts such as merely teachings, examples and events, and consequently reduce the Word’s relational significance both of the Father and to his followers without the whole relational outcome.

            In a prominent interaction, Jesus addressed some Jews who believed in him (Jn 8:31-47). At this point, they were not aware of reductionism having shaped their theology and practice. Consequently, their listening to Jesus’ words on redemption and transformation was not only problematic but also involved function incapable of hearing Jesus’ relational terms—a lack characteristic of those not listening to reductionism. Their theology and practice, likely from Second Temple Judaism, had been transposed to outer in, thus they were preoccupied with referential information of their identity (v.33) and referential knowledge of God (v.41). Their preoccupation with the secondary left them with “no room for my word” (v.37, NIV); and “for the sake of your referential tradition, you make void the relational word of God” (Mt 15:6). Yet, underlying their not listening to the Word is a deeper issue that Jesus exposes. “Why is my relational language not clear to you?” Jesus asked rhetorically. “Because you are unable to hear what I say only in relational terms.” Why, because their theology and practice had been shaped by reductionism and its “native language” narrowed down to referential terms, thereby biasing their listening to the relational Word and predisposing them to pay attention to, for example, secondary parts (reduced and fragmented) and to ignore the primary unfolding in whole relational terms, therefore exposing “the reason you do not hear” (vv.43-47, NIV). This is the relational consequence of not listening to reductionism and paying attention to its counter-relational work.

            Jesus’ main disciples were not immune from this relational consequence. Reductionism in their theology and practice was not apparent to the early disciples, since they ignored its influence—even while they were strongly committed in serving Jesus—and didn’t carefully listen and pay close attention to Jesus’ words while in his presence (e.g. Mk 4:24; Lk 8:18), especially his critical feedback to them.

            When Jesus directly asked his main disciples if they wanted to retract their commitment to follow him, Peter responded without hesitation for all of them: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and know that you are the Uncommon of God” (Jn 6:67-69). Quite a statement and confession, that is, from those not listening to reductionism and paying attention to its shaping of their theology and practice. Not surprising or even unexpected, however, when composed in referential language by referential terms (signified in “Lord,” “eternal life,” “know” and “Holy One”). The words of Jesus that they assumed “to know” were referential words in referential language composing their referential knowledge of God, which Jesus would soon clarify and correct in them. They didn’t listen to Jesus’ whole person and pay attention to his relational work, while ignoring his relational significance embodying the whole and uncommon God. This was soon evident after Jesus’ second feeding of thousands, when Jesus exposed their narrowed-down epistemic field and myopic perceptual-lens: “Do you still not perceive or understand [syniemi, integrating the whole picture]? Are your hearts distant and not vulnerable to me? Do you have eyes, and not pay attention to my whole person and relational work? Do you have ears and not listen to my relational words and relational significance?”—which they could only answer in referential terms. “Do you not yet turn from your reductionism in order to understand my whole relational terms?” (Mk 8:17-21)

            Later, speaking for the disciples, Peter made another major confession in response to Jesus’ relational request (Mt 16:15-17), which Peter unknowingly made from beyond his narrowed-down epistemic field (“not revealed to you by human terms but by my Father,” v.17, NIV). Yet, as Jesus relationally revealed his coming intense relational work (not explaining a referential event), Peter rejected his relational terms and attempted to constrain Jesus to the bias of his common lens of the messiah that limited what Christ could and could not do—clearly demonstrating the shaping of Peter’s theology and practice by reductionism (16:21-23).

            Moreover, as Jesus further revealed relationally his coming relational work, he made imperative for the disciples to listen carefully and “Let my relational words sink into your ears…. But they did not understand his relational terms; its meaning was concealed from their lens, so that they could not perceive relational terms” (Lk 9:44-45). How they perceived (aisthanomai, recognize, understand) involved understanding words through referential recognition, having this frame of reference for terms, which obviously was incompatible to aisthanomai Jesus’ words in relational terms. At this stage, the disciples were unwilling to be vulnerable with Jesus and kept their hearts at a relational distance (as in “hardened,” Mk 8:17). This prevented their aisthētērion  (from aisthanomai, organ of perception, faculty of discernment, capacity of recognition) from being developed and maturing (as in Heb 5:13-14), in order to have the hermeneutic means necessary to know and understand God’s whole relational language, terms, words and actions, and therefore to know and understand the whole and uncommon God.

            Their continued preoccupation with the secondary exposed an underlying theological anthropology composing reduced ontology and function of persons and relationships from outer in. This entrenched them in a comparative process stratifying relationships with distinctions of ‘better’ or ‘less’, which further shaped their discipleship by reductionism and the comparative measurement of “which one of them was the greatest” (Lk 9:46). Even at their last table fellowship with Jesus in communion, they continued to be preoccupied with “which one of them was to be regarded as the greatest” (Lk 22:24). While Christians today might not express concern about this exactly in the disciples’ terminology, we unmistakably still have the same concern, whether as an individual or a local church or a theological school, or even as a global sector.

            Without listening carefully to reductionism and paying close attention to its fragmenting and counter-relational work, it is not surprising but even to be expected that after three intensive years of discipleship and ministry with Jesus, these magisterial disciples experienced a pervasive consequence among Jesus’ followers, including Christian leaders today: “…and you still do not know me?” (Jn 14:9) Jesus wasn’t stating a hyperbole but distinguishing the primary from the secondary, and the results expected from each. If we listen to the Word, he made paradigmatic for all his followers: “the measure you use will determine the measure you get back” (Mk 4:24).

 

 

 

Listening to History

 

            Along with hermeneutical and epistemological issues, there are ontological and relational issues deeply involved ongoingly in the composition of our theology and practice and the formation of Christian identity in a changing world. When Israel was chosen by relational terms to be God’s uncommon family in the covenant relationship of love (Dt 7:7-9), they had difficulty being distinguished beyond the common and maintaining their whole identity in the limits of the world. The fragmentary human context would shape who they were at the expense of whose they were. They increasingly wanted to be a nation-state “such as all the other nations” rather than be uncommon—perceived as ‘different thus less’ in a comparative process—“so that we also may be like other nations” (1 Sam 8:5,20).

            Without listening to God’s relational terms of wholeness (tamiym) for the covenant in the primacy of relationship together and without paying attention to reductionism influencing their theology and practice, they composed traditions that reduced their theology and practice to the ontology of persons and the function of relationships defined and determined from outer in, based on fragmentary parts unconnected in relational distance (as in Isa 29:13). This history of their theology and practice unfolded further in Second Temple Judaism (after the exile) distinctly into Jesus’ time—history we need to listen to carefully because it has significance for examining our own theology and practice, notably our worship (Mk 7:1-9, NIV). Pay close attention to the unconnected parts composed by tradition:

 

“lips” moving apart from “hearts”; “hearts” in relational distance “far from me”; the “worship me” relationship reduced to referential “teachings…rules taught by humans”; thereby substituting “the whole relational terms of God” with “the traditions composed by humans”; and, therefore, “You have a subtle way of reducing the primacy of God’s relational terms for relationship together in order to keep your traditions primary.”

 

What Jesus confronted in religious traditions was reductionism, exposing its subtle shaping of theology and practice that reduced God’s whole relational terms to the fragmentary parts of our terms having renegotiated covenant relationship together (cf. aphiemi in v.8 with Rev 2:4).

Both religious and cultural traditions have shaped the global church, and we cannot continue to assume that they are simply ‘what’s good for the church’. Listening to the Word is how we need to pay attention to the traditions in our theology and practice for any influence from reductionism, notably working subtly in our surrounding contexts that we must not ignore—or be subject to the above relational consequences. We should not, must not, cannot just assume that in the traditions explicitly or implicitly composing our theology and practice “you are not being reduced or fragmented”—the subtle assumption we are ongoingly subjected to.

We will learn further and deeper as we listen. In the fragmentary traditions of majority Jews theology and practice, circumcision was reduced to an outer-in identity marker for nation-state, rather than signifying circumcision of the heart from inner out to distinguish the identity of the whole person in the covenant relationship together of love (Gen 17:10-11; Dt 10:15-16; 30:6). This unfolding history of Israel’s theology and practice—in which Paul was thoroughly embedded and defined by, “a Hebrew of Hebrews,” (Phil 3:5-6)—was illuminated for Paul when he listened to the Word and paid attention to reductionism. Therefore, Paul (still a Jew) made definitive the whole theology and practice that truly composed the identity of a Jew in God’s whole relational terms (Rom 2:28-29)—the formation of which in referential terms, Paul also clarified, had neither significance to God nor value to his family (Gal 5:6; 6:15).

            Within this background history, we need to place Jesus during the cleansing of ‘the house of the LORD’ in order to locate him on the theological trajectory and relational path necessary for our theology and practice to be compatible, on the same trajectory and path, and thus composing our theology and practice as the global church in his wholeness (Paul’s only determinant imperative for the church, Col 3:15). As noted earlier, we need to listen to sin beyond just ethics and morality to its breadth and depth as reductionism. Otherwise Jesus’ forceful actions become debatable, arguably seen as an anomaly or exception that no longer applies today, especially in the church. What Jesus saw in “my house,” however, with his whole perceptual-interpretive lens was reductionism, and its sin and counter-relational workings needing to be redeemed and restored to wholeness. The above condensed history established irrefutably—despite rebuttal from Jewish leaders in John’s account of Jesus redeeming “my Father’s house” (Jn 2:18)—the full context for Jesus’ action in relational terms for a necessary relational purpose, not as a referential event. And this relational purpose is needed even in the church today.

            Since Israel’s theology and practice revised God’s relational terms for covenant relationship together to referential terms, they renegotiated the terms for relationship with God to be defined by their terms; consequently, they assumed they could configure the Lord’s house on their terms, shaping it accordingly (cf. Jer 7:10-11). In contrast, the Psalmist declared joy for “the house of the Lord,” its condition of well-being in wholeness (shalom), and, in relational terms over referential, that “For the relational purpose of the house of the Lord our God, I will seek your good” (Ps 122). ‘Good’ (tob) once again emerges with a subtle challenge to be defined either by God’s whole relational terms (as this psalmist) or by our reduced referential terms (even well-established by tradition with good intentions). That is, the nature of the challenges is who defines what’s good for the church, and what determines who the church is. Without listening carefully to this subtle challenge and paying close attention to the subtlety of its counter-relational workings, such a perceptual-interpretive lens narrows down “good and evil” to a “good without wholeness” and an “evil without reductionism”—in other words, what was really promised in the primordial garden about “knowing good and evil.”

            When we define good apart from the wholeness that God constituted in the beginning, we make assumptions about what’s good for the church that imply ignoring sin as reductionism. The influence of reductionism is inseparable from the former, underlying who defines what and what determines who. We need to understand that good without wholeness has become the common definition prevailing in the world, and that underlies the various aspects of globalization. The reality for the global church exists in both its defining use of the common good and the church shaped by it. As emerged from the beginning, good apart from wholeness opens the door to anything less and any substitutes in our theology and practice. This renders us, often unknowingly or at least inadvertently, to epistemological illusions and ontological simulations, all of which are operating in our theology and practice under the uncritical assumption “we will not be reduced or fragmented.” The reality (often subtle) of this consequence is unavoidable when subject to reductionism; more importantly, this consequence is inescapable unless redeemed by the wholeness of Christ.

            What existed in “my house” may seem obvious in the Gospels’ accounts, yet the underlying issues are composed subtly with a ‘good without wholeness’ and an ‘evil without reductionism’. This subtle dynamic continues to unfold in the global church today, along with assuming that churches can shape the Lord’s house on their renegotiated terms. Evidence of this in churches in the global North and South is indicated when a church professes what’s good and promotes that good with various aspects yet without its inherent wholeness—focused on only well-meaning parts, for example, “good for food” and “to make one wise”—which then God would say “It is not good.” Conjointly, when churches proclaim salvation from ‘sin without reductionism’ and ignore sin as reductionism, or don’t pay attention to its counter-relational work reducing the primacy of relationship together in wholeness—for example, allowing relational distance, stratified relationships, preoccupation with the secondary (even by serving)—then such churches reflect, reinforce or sustain reductionism in their theology and practice, to which God would say “It is not good to be apart from wholeness.” What exists in the Lord’s house is critical for the global church to examine about its condition in order to clarify and/or correct its theology and practice in need of urgent care, perhaps emergency care for any subtle condition threatening its significance. Listening to the Word will provide the light and understanding needed to illuminate what exists, penetrating the fog of any illusions and getting down to the heart of any simulations.

            First of all, as we return to Jesus’ intense action in the temple, he immediately declared in relational terms—Jesus didn’t teach them in referential terms—that “My house is a house of prayer” (Mk 11:17). That is to say, not just referring to the temple as such, Jesus was stating definitively his house’s relational ontology and function: God’s relational context and process for communicating together face to Face in reciprocal relationship. The very nature of “my house” can be nothing less and its existence cannot be determined by any substitutes, which then raises urgent questions about the compositions of churches today. What Jesus found was a conflicting nature and contrary existing substitutes re-presenting the Lord’s house. Setting aside our assumptions and paying close attention to what likely have been only familiar details until now will help us understand the depth of what Jesus saw and the breadth of what he found.

            In John’s account, what Jesus forcefully intruded on was “a marketplace” (Jn 2:16), which helps us have a deeper understanding of the subtle issues than the blatant “a den of robbers” tends to offer in the other Gospels. What do you perceive in a marketplace? Such a context is certainly common and necessary in the global South as well as North (shaped by a shopping mall). There are various factors that characterize a marketplace: sellers, merchandise, buyers, and convenience of both product and process, that is, for those consumers who have the means (including social currency), which then implies a stratified system composed by a comparative process. Sound familiar in churches today? What we need to pay attention to for the contemporary global church are the subtle ways a marketplace conflicts with the nature of “my house,” and is contrary to its existence, thereby reducing or fragmenting the ontology and function of God’s church family.

            In one sense, the church can be described as “sellers” of the gospel. Yet, when various “merchandise” is offered to seekers of good news for their “convenience of product and process” called faith, even with good intentions this reinforces them to be consumers. Consumers and their spiritual consumption sustain the church to function (even unintentionally or inadvertently) as a consumer church—demonstrated even in the early church, which Paul exposed in the fragmented church at Corinth (1 Cor 1:11-12; 3:4). At this early stage, Paul was already distinguishing his person and ministry from the consumerism of those “peddlers of God’s word like so many” (2 Cor 2:17); his person and ministry can only be distinguished in whole relational terms composing the primacy of relationship together with God, whereby “we speak in relational terms as persons from inner out, as persons in the primacy of relationship sent from God and standing vulnerably in his presence.” Unlike Paul, do we essentially also get into merchandising God’s word to peddle it to buyers, and likely for their convenience of the product and process of faith, in order to subtly generate more participants and thus supporters for the church—a church’s existence and even survival depending on it?

            Moreover, ‘convenience of product and process’ has long been desired. Consider carefully these two examples: (1) The convenient fruit desired to make one conveniently wise that emerged from the primordial garden; and (2) following Jesus conveniently for the convenient outcome of messianic expectations, “When the people saw…they began to say…indeed the messiah…make him king…. Jesus said, ‘…you are looking for me…because you consumed convenience and want more” (Jn 6:14-26). From the beginning, a desire for consumption unfolded to feed self-interest and self-determination; and the human context has evolved to make this consumer process increasingly convenient and abundant. Since the Industrial Revolution, we have come to expect convenience, which likely has since evolved into entitlement, at least in the global North. Both in terms of product and process, convenience requires less work and thus also less involvement by our person—resulting, for example, in less face-to-face contact, much less involvement, by the convenience of modern technology.

At the same time, living in this age of convenience—which is emerging also in the global South—extends the subtle challenge from reductionism. We need urgently to pay attention because convenience has become a prevailing subtle substitute for our person and relationships, reduced from the wholeness God created. Convenience also is pervading the church in its theology (e.g. of the gospel) and practice (e.g. in discipleship, or lack thereof)—just as Jesus found in the marketplace composing “my house.” For example, on the one hand, promoting a prosperity gospel (popular in global South and North) amounts to false advertising that sells short the whole gospel; on the other hand, promoting a gospel limited to salvation from sin (yet without reductionism) truncates salvation and shortchanges the whole gospel with a convenient substitute having little significance for everyday life today and making minimal demands in the practice of faith—in other words, giving the consumer what they want at the loss of what they need.

            Going deeper, there is still more underlying that we need to listen and pay attention to. Just as the temple courtyard was used to merchandise the sacrifice and offerings necessary to practice faith, the consequence was that certain people benefitted and others didn’t, and usually at their expense. That is, the “den of robbers” signifies that persons were being shortchanged or cheated in their faith, and thus essentially robbed of receiving and experiencing the wholeness of faith constituting God’s family. Only in relational terms is “my house” the relational context and process of communication in reciprocal relationship together between God and all persons, regardless of human distinction and without their exclusion or subordination. When Jesus irrevocably qualified “my house” as “a house of prayer for all nations, peoples, persons” (Mk 11:17), he also confronted the existing systemic, institutional and structural factors preventing this relational reality. For example, the outer temple courts were designated originally for Gentiles but were substituted by a marketplace. Furthermore, women and foreigners were excluded from having access to “my house.”[5] The conflicting nature and contrary existing substitute that Jesus found for “my house” re-presented a reduced and fragmented context and process for persons and relationships that resulted in reduced ontology and function needing to be redeemed and transformed. Their shaping of the Lord’s house functioned as a stratified system that measured persons and relationships in a comparative process to include some and exclude others, to benefit some at the loss of others, which in human terms could only operate as a zero-sum process. Again, past or present, these relational consequences are unavoidable, as are the consequences of anything less and any substitutes from reductionism.

            Indeed, “the measure you use will be the measure you get,” yet Jesus would not tolerate “my house” being shaped by reductionism. With the intensity (zelos) of his whole person directed to his family’s house, Jesus made it imperative: “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (Jn 2:17). John’s Gospel, unlike the other Gospels, places this account near the beginning, not with a different chronology but for a different purpose. John didn’t highlight an event but rather used this to illuminate the integrating theme for the whole theology and practice that Jesus embodied for the whole gospel, in order that our ontology and function, theology and practice, as God’s family would also be whole in likeness of the whole of God (as in Jn 14:27; 17:20-26). Therefore, does listening to the Word, to this history, and to reductionism make it imperative for the global church today to pay attention to what exists in the church, what’s shaping churches, and currently what needs redemptive change for transformation to wholeness? The alternative is to continue to reflect, reinforce and sustain a condition of good without wholeness and sin without reductionism.

 

 

 

Listening to Key Words for Church History

 

            Let’s consider some other early churches and further listen to the Word address their theology and practice. In the beginning history of the early church (after the Acts and epistles) Jesus observed some recurring issues that needed clarification and correction, which is recorded in what signifies his post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology to be whole (Rev 2-3). This discourse contains vital relational words that have not been sufficiently listened to and adequately paid attention to in relational terms during the course of church history. When we listen to the Word in relational terms, we also need to pay attention to the reductionism contending with his wholeness. In his family love, Jesus exposed reductionism in various church practices to hold them accountable for the integrity necessary to be whole as his church. This integrity has not changed based on his relational terms, and this unaltered condition makes it imperative for the global church to examine its own integrity and its basis for it. The skewed emphasis of the secondary over the primary in churches was clearly evident in his post-ascension discourse and makes his vital relational words indispensable for churches today to be whole in likeness of the whole and uncommon God.

            We need to understand the full context of Jesus’ discourse to have complete understanding of his key words for us today. Being whole always involves the issue of reductionism, since the sole purpose of reductionism is to counter God’s whole. While subtlety is a trademark of reductionism, prevalence is the mark of its common presence and workings. We cannot ignore the reality that what prevails in (en) any context of the world is reductionism; nor can we simply assume that we will not be reduced or fragmented by its influence in our surrounding contexts. Earlier Jesus called (and continues to call) his followers relationally out of (ek) these contexts in order to be whole together as his family and thereby to be distinguished from those common contexts. Thus distinguished, he also relationally sends them back into (eis) those surrounding contexts to live whole in the primacy of relationship together as his family, and therefore embody the good news to make whole the human condition “to be apart”—all made definitive in Jesus’ formative family prayer (Jn 17:9-23).

This prayer must not be seen (heard) in referential terms for mere information—for example, as often considered when seen as his high priestly prayer—but it is crucial to receive in relational terms as defining for his church. Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement by which Jesus constituted his family, church practice is functionally (if not theologically also) based on just en (in) the surrounding context and thereby shaped in its influence, that is, by the prevailing influence of reductionism. To be en the world not only exposes us to the presence of this prevailing influence surrounding us but, more important, we become subject to its shaping (e.g. of our identity), unless we are ongoingly connected and involved with a source beyond the prevailing influence surrounding us—namely, the Source who whole-ly determines us (and that identity). Ek is that relational dynamic connecting us to be directly involved with that Source beyond—the whole and uncommon God not narrowed down to the limits and constraints of the world, notably contained by the surrounding human context.

            We may try to avoid or escape reductionism’s prevailing influence—for example, by isolating ourselves, as attempted in church history by monasticism—only to discover the experiential reality that the sin of reductionism is unavoidable and inescapable because it composes the human condition “to be apart” even in isolation. However, how Jesus constitutes his family is distinguished with the relational process ek composed by relational terms distinct from referential terms—the irreplaceable relational process distinguishing the church’s whole and uncommon identity. Furthermore, what distinguishes his family requires jointly the relational dynamic of eis directing his family back into the world in order to live their whole and uncommon identity in the world to make it whole also. And any form of separatism is not an option for distinguishing his family in the world but simply diminishes and minimalizes its identity (as salt and light, Mt 5:13-16). Only this reciprocating dynamic of ek-eis relational involvement with the whole and uncommon God—composing reciprocating contextualization in the relational process of triangulation—constitutes the identity of his family distinguished from anything less and any substitutes shaped by reductionism.

            On this relational basis constituting his church and distinguishing the church’s identity in the surrounding context, Jesus clarified and corrected the practices and related theology of various early churches. This integrally forms the lens also for how we need to pay closer attention to church history and the basis for the current global church.

            Each of these churches is notable for its own variation of church practice, which parallel church practices today. An underlying issue, however, common to these churches emerges in Jesus’ correction of them: the referentialization of the Word from God’s whole relational terms (composing Jesus’ theological trajectory and relational path) to referential terms. Referentialization of the Word involves a narrowing-down process resulting in an incomplete, selective or otherwise distorted view of the Word—for example, not closely listening to the Word discussed above, notably his defining prayer for his church family—which then reshapes his theological trajectory and fragments his relational path. One of the common theological consequences of fragmenting the Word is substituting a hybrid theology for whole theology; and this further results in related consequences of fragmenting practice by substituting hybrid practice for whole practice.

            A hybrid process emerges clearly in the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-19). Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much like unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thereby engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially.[6] The economic structure of this church’s surrounding context shaped them to take an apparent pragmatic approach to their practice of faith, rather than become isolated economically and socially.

In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledged this church’s extensive Christian practice: love, faith, service, patient endurance, and that their “last works are greater than the first,” indicating not a status-quo church but actually performing more practice than before. Yet, what Jesus clarified and corrected was that their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) a prevailing teaching and practice from the surrounding context (likely related to trade-guilds), which compromised the integrity of whole theology and practice. Significantly, their hybrid process was not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism; and the issue also went beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity (as another church will soon demonstrate) to the deeper issue about participation in (en) a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive lens. Their lens, of course, determined what they ignored (or tolerated) and paid attention to, which shaped their practice.

            Theologically, the Thyatira church demonstrated a weak view of sin, that is, sin without reductionism, consequently what they certainly must have considered good works was ‘good without wholeness’. Functionally, this exposes their lack of reciprocal relational involvement with God in the indispensable ek-eis reciprocating dynamic necessary to distinguish their whole identity as God’s family en the surrounding context without being fragmented by it in a hybrid process. What converges in a hybrid process is critical to listen to carefully and pay attention to closely: ‘sin without reductionism’ subtly composes ‘good without wholeness’, so that the church’s theology and practice are not distinguished whole in the world—though perhaps having longstanding, popular or uncompromising distinction in the surrounding context (as other churches demonstrated). To what extent does a hybrid process shape the global church today? Added attention needs to be paid to global South churches, who must adapt to a global economy, fixed cultural traditions, and even the spirit world. Yet, common practices by global North churches already demonstrate having absorbed the limits and constraints from the common into their theology and practice, although the hybrid process is much more subtle.

            The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than witnessed in the Thyatira church, as becomes evident increasingly in the other churches Jesus addressed. The subtlety should not be lost to us because the recurring issues Jesus clarifies and corrects also penetrate deeper into the global church today.

            Next is the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22), perhaps the most recognized of these churches due to familiarity of key words by Jesus: “you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot…. Listen! I am standing at the door knocking.” Laodicea’s water supply was unique—hot water piped in from hot springs and cold water trenched in from the mountains—yet what characterizes this church is how common it was. Western churches, notably in the U.S., need to pay added attention here. This was a rich city known as a prosperous banking center, for its textile industry and it renowned medical school—cultivating great pride by their residents in their financial wealth, fine clothes and famous eye salve. The church there wasn’t isolated from this context but shaped by these secondary substitutes for the primary. The state of the church reported this self-assessment: “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing” (v.17). Whether or not they considered themselves “hot” as a church, they certainly thought they were a good church compared to a “cold” church. It is unlikely that anyone would consider them “not good,” particularly in comparative church history. In prevalent ecclesiastical terms, they were good indeed, yet measured only on the basis of outer-in quantitative terms focused on the secondary (cf. a marketplace). Their narrow lens and fragmentary basis reflected how they defined persons from outer in by what they did and possessed, which signified how they engaged each other in relationships, thereby determining the basis for how they practiced church. Underlying their practices was a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function—subtle but common theology and practice of most churches. This was the fragmentary condition that the embodied Word (in and from the beginning) clarified and corrected to expose the true state of their church from inner out in qualitative relational terms, the reality of which composed an inconvenient truth for the church: “You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind and naked,” which certainly then is “not good”—even by common comparative terms.

            The strength of Jesus’ feedback—which doesn’t appear to be loving or, at least, irenic—was necessary to penetrate their self-assessment illusion shaped by reductionism and to expose their functional simulation with substitutes composed by reductionism. Since they were not paying attention to reductionism, he reminded them that “the measure they were using was the measure they were getting,” and that they could neither boast of nor even hope for having anything more. Just as their water supply turned lukewarm by the time it reached the city and was an inconvenience to their lifestyle, the reality for this church was the condition of being lukewarm. For Jesus, their lukewarm church practice was not only inconvenient but distasteful—if you’ve ever had lukewarm water on a hot day—“I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” Even if they were “cold,” at least they wouldn’t operate the church with illusions. Lukewarm, however, is a subtle practice from reductionism that promotes the status quo; it signifies what is common in the surrounding context and serves to maintain the status quo of the common—with no thought, desire or need to be distinguished as the uncommon. In other words, this church embodied the common theology and practice that what’s good (or at least OK) for the church is ‘good without wholeness’; and it maintains this illusion because it only acknowledges any sin as ‘sin without reductionism’, while ignoring ‘sin as reductionism’ of their persons, relationships and thus church under the assumption that they are not reduced or fragmented.

            Moreover, and this is crucial today for the global church to listen and pay attention to, the prevailing reality is that the Internet and social media have amplified the comparative process to compose “virtual good.” And these pervasive messages and referential information subtly both shape our lens and thinking as well as construct illusions and simulations in our practice. Churches (including the global South) are neither isolated nor immune from this globalized comparative system. Think about all the church and academy websites, and remember the early disciples primary concern for “which of them is the greatest.” How much does this create a consumer mentality promoting consumer products to feed our consumption of what’s good? Therefore, since Christians and churches are exposed to and participate in this comparative process, we cannot assume any longer that “we are not and will not be reduced or fragmented.”

            What Jesus found in the Laodicean church he continues to find common in churches today. As we listen to the Word and to reductionism, we also need to listen to him pursuing us at the door of our hearts (3:20). His family love seeks for his family to be uncommonly whole together in likeness of the whole and uncommon God, which is irreducible to anything less and nonnegotiable with any substitutes—notably prevalent in the surrounding contexts. The classic image of Jesus knocking at the door is a metaphor of his deep desires and the redemptive change needed for this relational outcome—a metaphor relationally directed less to the individual (as is Christian convention) and more to his church family, the full context for ecclesiology to be whole.

            The pervasive influences of reductionism in churches is to be expected when they don’t pay close attention to their theology and practice shaped by ‘good without wholeness’ and ignore the presence in their midst of sin as reductionism. The convenient alternative assumed in theology and practice—which readily provides a rationale for this to continue, even develop into traditions—is some hybrid. This is the subtle challenge unfolding from reductionism that continues to be engaged with increasing subtlety. Two other churches demonstrated an increased subtlety in their theology and practice, which listening to the Word will help us understand the dynamic of reductionism and its counter-relational workings even in our prominent churches that, comparatively speaking, put lukewarm churches to shame.

            The next church is in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3). They had “a name, reputation, brand [onoma] of being alive” apparently in the prevailing perception surrounding them, even though this city hosted many pagan cults whose practices pervaded the surrounding context. The implication here, which we need to understand fully, is that this church lived behind their name, reputation, brand, that is, onoma used as the substitute for what a person (in this case church) actually is. A popular name or brand, for example, is highly respected and has a strong reputation (perhaps even appeal) in the surrounding context, which in a diverse context like Sardis commanded even more acclaim. Yet, did this onoma actually represent what the church was, or merely represent what the church hoped to be, hoped to achieve in the surrounding context or even hope to claim in their comparative system? That is to say, did their onoma in reality become a reductionist substitute for what the church actually needed to be?

            Jesus wasn’t impressed by their practice and made no such assumptions about them being alive in their ontology and function. Rather he examined how they functioned, that is, examined in relational terms through the qualitative whole lens penetrating inner out with family love. Though he was subjected to reductionism yet not determined by the influence of the surrounding bias perceiving this church—which is important for us to distinguish in our church assessments—Jesus exposed what actually existed beneath the outer layer (and onoma) of “being alive”: the simple, if not inconvenient, truth was, “contrary to your esteemed identity, you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the source of life, thus being unaccompanied by something, i.e. “to be apart”); this reality based on the fact that “I have not found your practice complete [pleroo] in the sight of my God” (NIV); that is, their ergon (works denoting what defined them) was incomplete (contrary to pleroo, to make full, complete or whole) and fragmentary based on God’s whole terms, not as defined by the surrounding context. This church assumed that ‘the measure they used’ for their ecclesiology and practice would not reduce or fragment their ontology and function; yet the often-ignored subtle reality is that such a consequence was ‘the measure they got’—just as Jesus earlier made axiomatic as well as paradigmatic (Mk 4:24).

            Was there also something more specific missing in their church practice that we can understand? Unlikely if we are listening only in referential terms, yet there is indeed in relational terms. Since no explicit sins such as idol worship and sexual immorality were mentioned (as in Thyatira), their incomplete deeds point to something more subtle or lacking. Their activity was perceived as alive, yet likely in the quantitative aspects of bios, not the qualitative function of zoe. Their reputation signified only a substitute (onoma) of the integral identity of who, what and how his church is, consequently lacked the integrity of wholeness. While Jesus’ polemic about soiled and white (leukos, bright, gleaming) clothes described those incomplete and a remnant who weren’t incomplete respectively, bright clothes symbolized those who participated in God’s life (3:4).This is about reciprocal relationship and involvement together, which soiled clothes symbolized a barrier to, precluded or maintained with relational distance. Any type of “soiled” clothes—whether stained by blatant sin or dirtied from subtle incomplete work, including preoccupation with the secondary—would have this relational consequence.

            What this more subtly indicates is the lack or absence of ongoing involvement in the ek-eis relational dynamic that Jesus made the relational imperative for his church family to be distinguished en the surrounding contexts of the world (Jesus’ defining prayer discussed above, Jn 17)—distinguished in their whole and uncommon identity from the common and fragmentary surrounding them. Without this relational outcome from the ek-eis relational dynamic, this church became subject to the shaping influence of reductionism with the following consequences:

 

Therefore, they were unable to distinguish being whole from reductionist substitutes in their practice, which emerged from subtly renegotiating God’s whole relational terms to their terms, thereby submitting to a comparative process measured by ‘good without wholeness’, which composed their illusion and simulation of being alive, unable to perceive that “you are reduced and fragmented,” which rendered them to reflect, reinforce and sustain the human condition “not good to be apart,” leaving them to know only ‘sin without reductionism’—the knowledge of good and evil too many churches are subject to and thus shaped by.

 

            It seems incongruent that this highly esteemed church was so incomplete. Their practice obviously wasn’t lukewarm to reflect a status-quo church as in Laodicea. Yet, the subtle self-contradiction is that what often appears compatible to Christ’s church (known early as the Way) is in reality not congruent with Jesus’ relational path embodying God’s whole relational terms (cf. Mt 7:22-23). Being complete and whole and not reduced or fragmented has been an ongoing issue in church history, with recurring issues facing the global church today. Yet, the issue of not being complete or being whole started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. When God declared “it is not good for human persons to be apart,” God started, with Adam and Eve, the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family. This was later fulfilled by Jesus—as he declared “I will not leave you as orphans” and sent us the Spirit for completion—in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love. This relational context and process of God’s family were not the primary function of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry, so Jesus critiqued what they “filled their church” with, as he does all churches.

            In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), qualitative substance was lacking. This reflected a shift in how they defined themselves from the inner out to the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo, change outward form). Their lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially meaningless—though worth an image in comparative reductionists terms—while the validity of their work (apparent service and ministry) was relationally insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to wholeness of life. These are severe critiques Jesus made of a church that at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive—unlike the Laodicean church’s lukewarmness. The choice essentially of style over substance is not unique to the church in Sardis. In fact, the distinction between style (for appearance and image) and substance is blurred in many current church practices. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears to be and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers, when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success that many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work—or value to validate their position in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks, “What are we filling our churches with?” The above is not the dynamic of pleroo (making complete, whole) that distinguishes the pleroma (fullness, i.e. whole) of Christ (as Paul illuminated for the church’s wholeness, Eph 1:23).

            Family love functions for the integrity of relationship together to be whole, and for accountability for anything less and any substitutes. Thus, Jesus’ critiques were ‘a critique of hope’ in his call to be whole—a functional key in his involvement for ecclesiology to be God’s whole family. When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai, v.2) is to emerge as new, whole persons. This was not about self-determination but redemptive change—the relational imperative for transformation. They needed to be transformed in the inner-out aspects and functions (metamorphoo, the inward change of transformation) of the person and relationships, while being redeemed from the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo) that did not give full importance to the qualitative function of the whole person (signified only by the heart) and the primacy of relationships together in likeness of “my God.” Their outer-in over inner-out way of defining themselves determined what they paid attention to in how they did relationships and how they practiced church—which were not complete but fragmentary and thus without wholeness. The Father makes it a relational imperative for us to “Listen to him in his wake-up call.”

            The last church we will discuss in this group is in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4). It is the first church recorded in Jesus’ discourse yet it summarizes the primary issue underlying the other churches, as well as many others through church history into the present. When reductionism is not carefully listened to and its sin is not closely monitored in its subtlety, there is an increasing loss of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness. This loss emerged initially in the primordial garden when persons changed from “naked and were not ashamed” (Gen 2:25) in the primacy of whole relational terms from inner out, to “naked and covered themselves” (Gen 3:7) in fragmentary referential terms from outer in. The shift to referential terms from relational terms is often more implicit than in this scene, and thus is easily overlooked if we don’t pay attention in church practice to both the quantitative having the main focus over the qualitative and the secondary having more priority over the primary. The referentialization of the Word is the prime indicator of this shift, resulting in a distinct qualitative insensitivity and relational unawareness of the primacy of relationship together distinguishing God’s family—just as the embodied Word prayed only in relational terms (Jn 17:23,26). The church in Ephesus demonstrated this shift and its relational consequence. As you listen compare this church with churches today and see if there are recurring issues.

            Jesus consistently disclosed knowing these different churches’ “works” or deeds (ergon, what defined them). The list of the Ephesian church’s deeds is impressive: their “toil” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort); their “endurance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; signifies character that does not allow losing to circumstances, cf. church in Thyatira); they maintained the doctrinal purity of the church under trying circumstances and did not tolerate falsehood, unlike the Thyatira church and its hybrid theology; they even suffered repercussions for Christ’s name and yet endured the hardships to remain constant in their faith. It seems fair to say that their theological orthodoxy appeared uncompromising and spotless, maintaining their integrity in the surrounding context. This list forms a composite picture describing how they were, what they did and were involved in, which essentially was extremely dedicated in major church work, and which can also describe a number of successful churches today.

            Jesus knew not merely the information about their deeds but also knew (oida) the nature of them, and the extent of their functional significance. It may seem somewhat perplexing that Jesus was not impressed with this church and even felt to the contrary about their church practice: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (v.4). We may wonder “how can a church so involved in church work abandon its first love?” As noted previously, if this were not Jesus’ own critique, we would easily discount this as a misguided conclusion or uninformed allegation. Yet, his discourse here for the integrity of ecclesiology raised a serious issue of church function, which is crucial to account for in how we practice church ourselves. His critique makes conclusive the very heart of his desires for ecclesiology to be whole.

            The term “abandoned” (aphiemi) means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself or let alone; and this also includes functionally maintaining relational distance even while in close physical proximity or in mutual activity. Aphiemi is the same term Jesus used in his promise to “not leave his followers orphaned” (Jn 14:18). Connecting these relational messages provides the context and process for the function of ecclesiology to be God’s whole family. In the church context at Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the whole person and not giving primary priority to whole relationship together. They worked hard doing things for God but the relational process necessary for their “works” to have functional significance was deemphasized or misplaced in their effort. This often happens as churches develop and the goals of church growth become the priority of church practice. In the process, as the Ephesian church demonstrated, there is a subtle shift in which the means become the end and its primary purpose for relationship together to be whole is abandoned or made secondary.

            As the term hypomone for “perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances and situations such that persons (especially God) unintentionally were ignored in relationship, inadvertently left in relational distance or emotionally forgotten. This is a common relational consequence when secondary matters (such as situations) become the priority over the primacy of relationships. Their hypomone was in contrast to the Philadelphian church’s hypomone, which was a reciprocal relational response to Jesus’ desire (“you have kept my word”) for relationship together (3:8,10). What distinguished them from the Ephesian church was the latter’s referentialization of the Word. Enduring “for the sake of my name” (2:3) narrowed down “my name” to “name without my person,” that is, apart from relationship together; this namesake issue subtly involved a fragmentary process that either disembodies or de-relationalizes, or both, the Word embodied in only relational terms for only a relational purpose and outcome. By “abandoning” their involvement in relationship together (however unintentional or inadvertent), their focus shifted to their persevering character of not giving in to bad circumstances. Thus, their endurance for the sake of “name without my person” also stands in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience, endurance, longsuffering with respect to persons; the former is about dedication in hard work (characteristic of the Ephesian church) while the latter involves relationship with mercy, grace and family love (cf. Mt 18:21-22, Rom 2:4).

            Despite what would usually be defined as significant church practice reflecting sound ecclesiology, there was distance in their relationships leaving them in the condition “to be apart,” indicating a well-run orphanage (i.e. an organization substituting for family) that could only simulate ecclesiology of the whole. They did not have the relational involvement of family love, therefore they lacked the only involvement having relational significance to God (cf. Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a priority over ministry to the poor, Mt 26:8-13, par. Jn 12:1-8). This is further demonstrated by their reduction of the truth to mere doctrinal purity. They forgot that the Truth was vulnerably disclosed only for relationship together on God’s terms, which they were effectively redefining on their terms. Essentially, their referential terms reversed the priority order of Jesus’ paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26) that clearly defined the first priority of discipleship as intimate involvement in relationship together, not focused first on the work to be done for serving (diakoneo). Consequently, they also compromised their identity as the light, which is rooted in their relationship with the Light (Rev 2:5b, cf. Mt 5:14-15); this was also contrary to Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8).

Jesus exposed this church’s lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness in their theology and practice. In reality, what unfolded in this church is neither surprising nor unexpected. Since they focused primarily on what they did—indicating their reduced theological anthropology in how they defined themselves—they paid attention to related situations and circumstances and less important issues, while ignoring the primacy of relationship together in family love. Functioning with this perceptual-interpretive framework of a reduced theological anthropology resulted in the relational consequences of forsaking their first love, which reflected the lack of relational involvement in their church practice and signified their renegotiated ecclesiology in narrow referential terms. This should raise serious concerns for church theology and practice today. Does this mean that such church theology and practice reflects, perhaps reinforces or even sustains, the human condition “to be apart?”

            The basic complaint Jesus had against this church is the primary issue facing all churches for defining their ontology and determining how they will function: embracing the whole ontology and relational function of the Trinity, and embodying church practice in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology, therefore in congruence with and ongoing compatibility to Jesus’ defining prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26). In all that the Ephesian church was doing (which was a lot), they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole and uncommon God and did not function in the context of family and process of family love constituted in the Trinity. They demonstrated a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving, as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something (like serving others), however dedicated. For Jesus, this correlation is irrefutable for ecclesiology to be whole; “the measure you use will be the measure you get.” Whether Jesus’ complaint against this church included both their relationship with God and with each other is not clearly indicated in the text. Yet we can strongly infer that it included all their relationships, because their primary emphasis on their work reflected the three major issues ongoing in life: (1) how they defined themselves, which further determined (2) how they did relationships and thus (3) practiced church. These three major issues are always deeply interrelated, and also in integral interaction with the primary issue of the Trinity, noted above, thereby together they need to be accounted for in ecclesiology in order to be whole.

            The global church today needs to learn from the contradictions in both the Ephesus and Sardis church practices in order to counter reductionism’s influence of ‘good without wholeness’ (and ‘virtual good’ today) and ‘sin without reductionism’—recurring issues throughout church history. What these churches focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to become embedded in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion, notably (pre)occupied by the secondary over the primary. Moreover, the relational function of the Trinity cannot be understood in theological propositions nor experienced in church doctrine, even in its purity. By reductionist practice, these churches demonstrated how their practice (“abandoned the love you had at first” 2:4) and their understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” 3:1) became decontextualized from what was primary, and embedded in human contextualization. In their ironic struggle to remain distinct in a pluralistic Greco-Roman context, the Ephesian church stopped paying attention to the greater context that defined them and distinguished their significance. In their effort to be significant (or popular) in their surrounding context, the Sardis church ignored the primary context that constituted them. That is, they were both shaped by the fragmentary human context. Thus, they were removed, diminished or deemphasized from the relational context and process of the Trinity, and needed to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the function of reciprocating contextualization in the ek-eis relational involvement that Jesus made imperative to distinguish his family in the ecclesiology to be whole and to make whole. Without this reciprocating relational dynamic, church practice increasingly finds its functional basis only en (in) the surrounding context, in which reductionism prevails.

            When a church disembodies the Word embodying Jesus’ person to fragmentary parts of his teachings and actions, and also de-relationalizes the Word from Jesus’ relational terms composing reciprocal relationship together, then that church disconnects with the whole of Jesus’ person (whose ontology integrally includes the Father and Spirit) and thereby becomes relationally uninvolved or distant from the presence and involvement of Jesus’ person (and the Trinity) in the primacy of reciprocal relationship together. This unfolding relational consequence (often unrecognized or just ignored) emerges directly from the referentialization of the Word, which renders that church’s theology and practice to the shaping influence of the surrounding context. This consequence unfolds since the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement is not engaged to integrally distinguish church identity, purpose and function from beyond merely its position en the common of the world. Unable to be distinguished beyond referential terms, this shaping influence subtly shifts church theology and practice to a variable hybrid process. This subtle shift encompasses the following:

 

1.     This shift is qualitative, thus cannot be observed in quantitative terms, as the Thyatira church’s increased amount of “good deeds” demonstrated and the Laodicean church’s wealth, fine clothes and medicine illustrate.

 

2.     This shift is ontological, away from the inner-out whole person, thus cannot be understood by an outer-in ontology of personhood, as evidenced by the Sardis church’s inability to understand its true condition.

 

3.     This shift is relational, thus cannot be experienced in any other human activity than the primacy of intimate relationships together, as signified by the unawareness of the Ephesian church’s diminished experience in their level of relational involvement together.

The lack of qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness are prime indicators that a shift has taken place to a hybrid theology and practice.

            As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is narrowed down, for example, to referentialization, our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The churches critiqued by Jesus were not unique in church formation; and if we listen to his key words for ecclesiology, those churches cannot be considered exceptions in church history. Each church has at least one counterpart in the contemporary church that must be taken seriously because of Jesus’ critique for his global church family to be whole and uncommon in likeness of the whole and uncommon God:

 

  1. Church at Ephesus—the theologically orthodox or doctrinally correct church

  2. Church at Sardis—the successful “mega” church, or multisite church

  3. Church at Thyatira—the activist, service oriented, or missional church

  4. Church at Laodicea—the traditional status-quo church, or consumer church of convenience.

All these churches have in common what continue to be critical recurring interrelated issues needing epistemological clarification and hermeneutical correction: a weak view of sin not including reductionism, an incomplete knowledge of what’s good (for the church) without including wholeness, and a fragmentary theological anthropology reducing ontology and function from wholeness—all working subtly under the assumption that “we will not be reduced or fragmented” because “we know good and evil.” Therefore, Jesus’ key words in whole relational terms are indispensable for the assessment of the global church’s condition today, and are irreplaceable for the global church to be whole.

 

 

 

Listening to What Unfolds

 

            Listening to the Word in whole relational terms has been a pivotal problem in church history; and the shift to fragmentary referential terms has clogged the ears to listen to the subtle sounds of reductionism and has fogged the eyes to pay attention to its counter-relational work (as demonstrated by his disciples, Mk 8:17-18). From the beginning the Word has unfolded integrally in the uncommon theological trajectory and the whole relational path, which are irreducible to the common’s referential terms and nonnegotiable to terms other than the Word’s relational terms. Anything less and any substitutes in the church’s theology and practice have been on a different theological trajectory and relational path, however subtle. These so-called alternatives distinctly indicate the countering trajectory and path of reductionism’s presence and influence unfolding historically. Reductionism’s subtle challenge of the Word—“Did the Word say that?” and “Is that what the Word means or intends?”—promotes, encourages and directs us to engage a hybrid process that doesn’t explicitly reject or deny the Word. It just subtly converts the Word’s whole relational terms to narrowed-down referential terms specific to the common in the surrounding context in particular and in human contextualization in general. Not listening carefully and paying close attention have been consequential for the church.

            Unfolding further in church history from the early church, we witness recurring issues shaping the church’s theology and practice on a different theological trajectory or relational path. Two examples of this pivotal problem compel the global church to listen and pay attention.

            After the early church and the theology and practice of the apostolic fathers, the emergence of Christendom reached a pivotal point in the fourth century under the influence of the Roman emperor Constantine. Generally speaking, Constantine assumed prevailing influence over the church’s theology and practice. Much like Israel’s history to turn God’s people into a nation-state, Constantine directed his influence to construct a church-state—arguably with good or bad intentions—ostensibly to be distinguished as a theocracy. What unfolded, however, had no further distinction in identity beyond a state-church, the formation of which composed narrowed-down templates (read traditions) for conformity in church theology and practice—all composed, enforced and observed in referential terms. This so-called church-state (as in Israel’s nation-state) gained primacy over the church as family that Jesus embodied. The hybrid of a church-state or a state-church set in motion the institutionalization of the church in reduced ontology and function, and its interrelated and more subtle consequence of reduced ontology and function of human persons (as seen in Jesus’ clearing out of the Lord’s house). This more explicit hybrid process has been called Constantinianism: “the disease of allowing secularized and pagan rulers to dominate church life and meddle in biblical and theological interpretation.”[7] In other words, this is but one example of the global church shaped by the fragmentary human context, whether with good intentions or not, that thrust the church on a different theological trajectory and relational path

            Just as Jesus clarified and corrected church theology and practice—for example, the Thyatira church’s hybrid theology and practice, discussed earlier—the current global church needs to critique similar forms of civil Christianity in the global North (notably in the U.S.) and indigenous Christianity in the global South. Without intending to do so, what unfolds in the fourth century church theology and practice and those following in likeness fall into the recurring issue of church ontology and function “not good to be apart,” therefore subtly reflecting, reinforcing and even sustaining the reductionism composing the human condition. “I know your practice…you tolerate reductionism.”

            Fast forward in church history to what unfolds in the Reformation. The magisterial Reformers rightly critiqued the reductionist traditions of the reigning church’s theology and practice that merely composed templates for conformity without significance to God and its practitioners. Yet, did the Reformers adequately correct the reductionism and fragmentation of the Word to restore theology and practice? With few if any exceptions, churches in the global North and even South have been influenced by the Reformation in one way or another. What unfolds from the Reformation into the global church is vital to be clarified and corrected if necessary.

            Faith was a defining issue in the Reformation, yet even more pivotal in this debate was the underlying issue to either restore faith to its whole relational terms or extend the challenge of reductionism to still maintain faith’s subtle composition in referential terms—certainly not as reduced and fragmentary as the prevailing practice of faith, yet still in referential terms. The magisterial Reformers correctly addressed distorted aspects of faith regarding salvation, and they reformed theology and practice to restore faith in biblical terms not shaped by a hybrid process. But the question remains whether the primacy they gave to the Bible still leaves open the pivotal issue of the Word listened to and read in relational terms or referential terms. Generally speaking, what unfolded from the Reformation that gave it distinction are re-formed referential doctrines, which shaped a new orthodoxy that did not unfold in the transformation necessary to restore faith to the primacy of its relational terms composing relationship together in wholeness—faith’s relational outcome of the new creation church restored to Christ’s wholeness (as Paul made definitive, Col 3:15). And we should not expect faith to unfold in whole ontology and function from referential theology, no matter how doctrinally correct (as Jesus exposed in the Ephesian church, discussed above).

Again, while the Reformers correctly distinguished faith from works as the compatible response to God’s grace for salvation, this opened the door for faith also to be re-formed. On the one hand, faith became more qualitative than quantitative, more inner than outer. This also opened the door, on the other hand, for the person to be subtly exposed further to reduced ontology and function—that is, as an individual in nature who could define faith more on individual terms and who could shape one’s own identity and function without the whole. Directly interrelated to this unfolding process of re-form, new prevailing referential doctrines composed re-formed traditions of church theology and practice that were further fragmenting. Re-formers assumed that churches could construct relationship with God based on the church’s so-called biblical terms, and by those terms churches would not be reduced or fragmented. Therefore, each re-formed tradition was now free to define what’s ‘good’ (tob) for the church subtly ‘without wholeness’. Moreover, when the Reformers addressed a salvation limited mainly to the sin Jesus saved from, their referential terms did not illuminate sin as reductionism. Nor did their referential doctrine of salvation highlight what Jesus saved to: the primacy of relationship together in wholeness as God’s family, the new creation church family in likeness of the Trinity (as Jesus prayed). Thus, the theology and practice for faith formulated by the Reformers did not unfold with the necessary focus for ecclesiology to be whole—“I have not found your re-forms complete in the whole relational terms of my God.” Does this “Wake up” call also apply to the present global church?

Rather than wholeness (not to be confused with institutional unity or homogeneity), their skewed focus on sin without reductionism and imbalanced emphasis on what’s good without wholeness opened the Wittenberg door to the construction of multiple denominational re-forms. These variations further led to the prominence of the individual in theology and practice (e.g. even in spiritual formation)—converging with modernity to legitimate the shaping of individualism. This re-formation set in motion the exercise of Christian freedom that (1) reinforced the reductionism of the person by giving primacy to human rationality and reason, and (2) fragmented the church and reduced the person to unintended practices of self-determination (cf. Paul’s critique of individuals in the fragmented church at Corinth, 1 Cor 4:6-7; 2 Cor 10:12). Both of these re-formed results ironically lacked the relational significance of faith and reinforced the function of works, albeit under the name of individual faith. This fragmentary condition precipitated in the church the doctrinal need for Puritanism (e.g. as in Jonathan Edwards), the conformity to which further reduced the ontology and function of the person to outer in that made necessary the inward shift to the re-forms of Pietism (e.g. as in John Wesley). What unfolded increasingly became convenient. That is, convenient truths for faith, for example, which conveniently composed a so-called Protestant ethic to converge with the Industrial Age, resulting in an unintended (but not surprising) convenient faith of consumerism.

            The recurring issues unfolding from the Reformation further reinforced and sustained a comparative process openly engaged by churches, thereby stratifying the global church and determining persons by human distinctions of better-or-less, good-or-bad. This is to be expected because the referentialization of the Word always narrows down our lens in theology and practice, which results in the objectification of persons, both God and us. The theological anthropology underlying the Reformation, both its ontology and function for the person and for the church, needs to be understood in its reduced ontology and function. The above dynamics evolving with reduced ontology and function made conditions ripe to be further rationalized (as never before) by the Enlightenment (from the 18th century). Consequently, all the re-forms were unable to address and answer the interpretive framework and influence of the Enlightenment. The modernist framework has narrowed down the Word’s field of knowledge to the quantitative limits of referential terms. Accordingly, God’s improbable theological trajectory has become more and more probable, if addressed at all. At the same time, the relational path of the Word has been ignored, resulting in a loss or lack of relational awareness and qualitative sensitivity. In other words, the Reformation is but another example of the global church being shaped by the fragmentary human context, which continues to project churches on a different theological trajectory and relational path.

The consequences have extended to the contemporary church, thereby entrenching the human person in reduced ontology and function and further embedding faith in referential terms, while essentially relegating God to an Object position with only referential information about God as the basis for theology and practice. The truth of this experiential reality is, what at best is only secondary now re-forms what is primary. If any and all of our secondary are not integrated into and determined in priority by the primary of God, then the secondary subtly assumes the primary composing our theology and practice. And referentialization of the Word prevails into the present to serve this purpose.

            The modernist’s lens of referentialization has certainly been compatible for many global North Christians, notably demonstrated by neoevangelicals from the mid-twentieth century who tried to establish unequivocally the probability of God’s improbable theological trajectory. This referentialized lens of the Word has yet to fully understand its ontological and functional consequence impacting persons and the church, rendering them incongruent with the theological trajectory of the Word in relational terms. A postmodern philosophical framework in the global North and an indigenous lens in the global South don’t accept the grand-metanarrative of modernism—rightly exposing the modernist assumption of not being reduced or fragmented. Yet, Christians with this mindset have not and will not distinguish theology and practice beyond what’s common in the surrounding context, until they understand their incompatibility with the Word in relational terms and incongruence with the whole and uncommon God. The recurring issues in the Reformation keep unfolding today in one re-form or another, which only reflects, reinforces and sustains not listening carefully to the whole Word and not paying close attention to reductionism in its subtlety.

The Reformation did not adequately distinguish the relational context and process of the whole and uncommon God, in order to distinguish God’s relational language and terms for relationship together clearly from just referential language and terms for faith. This deficiency, on the one hand, put relational limits on what unfolded from faith and, on the other hand, did not have the relational constraints necessary for the human shaping that did unfold from the practice of faith. Consequently, the relational outcome from God’s relational context and process became elusive in spite of overemphasizing the place of faith and overestimating its function. If we affirm God’s revelation in Scripture, then we are accountable not just for our faith but for all of God’s words communicating in his relational language and terms—accountable not referentially and partially (whether by fragmentation or selectivity) but relationally and whole-ly. The Reformation rightly shifted us back to the primacy of Scripture; its focus, however, was insufficient, even selective (e.g. biased or skewed), therefore not accounting for the depth of God’s relational language communicated in the wholeness distinguished by God’s relational terms. That is to say, the Reformers did not listen carefully to the Word in his whole relational terms. Thus, even though they were compatible with his theological trajectory, they essentially were on a different relational path than the Word—just as many continue on today. Therefore, with the clarification and correction of family love, “I know your re-forms…. But I have this against you: You have abandoned your primary love.” Key words more relevant than ever.

 

 

So, what has unfolded since the Reformation that we give our attention to, that defines what’s good for our churches, that determines with what and how we fill our churches? Jesus’ housecleaning continues to be pertinent for directly confronting the recurring issues occupying churches today and serves as a wake-up call to churches for redemptive change. Urgently then, what recurring issues do we ignore that subtly reduce or fragment our theology and practice and underlying ontology and function, and, therefore, that keep us apart from the primary of the whole and uncommon God with our well-intentioned (or even convenient) preoccupation with the secondary? Speaking in relational terms, how much of our theology and practice unfolds from an incomplete Christology that neither follows nor makes relational connection with Jesus’ whole person on his whole relational path, who embodies his family and composes ecclesiology to be whole? Interrelated, how much of our faith incorrectly uses Paul to justify it merely to faith without works (and sin without reductionism), and thus in reality to be apart from his gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15) and to counter his ecclesiology of the whole (e.g. Eph 2:14-22)?

            “Don’t you know me, even after I have been among you such a long time?” are Jesus’ longing words—perhaps having become an inconvenient truth—that continue to pursue us today. Pursuing us in the experiential truth and relational reality of his inescapable key words, “Here I am! I stand at church doors and knock.” Do you hear him at your church door?

 

 

 

The Most Recurring Issue

 

            As we listen to the Word unfolding in his theological trajectory and relational path, we cannot ignore but must also listen to reductionism, and pay acute attention to its trajectory and path subtly unfolding in our midst. Reductionism’s trajectory and path are functioning parallel to the Word’s in order to counter the Word; and thus the former is always present along with the presence of the Word and is unavoidable as a recurring issue in theology and practice (cf. Lk 4:13). Conversely, as we listen intently to sin as reductionism, we cannot ignore but must also deeply listen to the Word and pay attention to the relational Word’s uncommon theological trajectory and whole relational path. The whole Word in relational terms unfolds in our midst with family love to clarify and correct our reductionism, and therefore is always interrelated to reductionism’s presence and inescapably focused on its influence and counter-relational work—that is, always interrelated and inescapable in relational terms. Simply put, we cannot listen carefully to one without listening to the other.

            Sin without reductionism is incompatible with the Word, and good without wholeness is incongruent, as the Word clarifies and corrects. Yet, we can pay partial attention to the Word and ignore reductionism. This was the practice of Jesus’ disciples that subtly put them on a different relational path in their discipleship, with the relational consequence of not knowing and understanding Jesus in relational terms. Such a divergent path and relational consequence—which are often not paid attention to or simply ignored, as the disciples demonstrated—unequivocally reflect the ongoing presence and recurring issue of reductionism that are inseparable and unavoidable when engaging the Word. The interaction unfolding in this converging process is vital for us to understand and is critical for what unfolds in the global church. Listening to sin without reductionism is a long-recurring issue increasing in our midst that more and more conveniently ignores the whole Word. This unfolds in a subtle process that clogs the ears to listen to his whole relational terms and fogs the eyes to pay attention to his whole relational path—all while engaged in subtle illusion and simulation with reduced and fragmentary substitutes about the Word in our church theology and practice.

If the global church wants to unfold in wholeness, we cannot continue to be fooled by the reductionist challenge offering (even from a referentialized Word) that “you will know good and evil.” The inconvenient truth of being subject to reductionism exposes this convenient reality: Good without wholeness is what God has been saying is “not good to be apart” and thus what’s not good for the church; and sin without reductionism renders the church to what’s common, thereby subtly reflecting, reinforcing and sustaining the human condition. If the church doesn’t want to be shaped by the fragmentary human context, it must by it constituted nature be restored to wholeness by redemptive change of the old and transformation to the new. Sin by its nature operates on a trajectory and path of anything less and any substitutes—even with re-forms for the church.

            Given our roots from the beginning and the unfolding of our history, can the global church still assume or claim that in this globalizing world and digital age, we will not be reduced or fragmented? The contemporary global church is not exempt from the sin of reductionism that prevails in the human context and pervades all those defined by their globalized context. This complex fragmentary human context persists with encompassing influence to shape persons, relationships, and churches until our theology and practice are distinguished whole from fragmentation and uncommon from the common. With the recurring issue of reductionism and its counter-relational workings converging with the global church, it is not only paradigmatic but indeed axiomatic for the reality of life in both the global North and South: “the measure we use will be the measure we get.”


 

 


[1] Further discussion on these changes is insightfully made by Sherry Turkle, Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other (New York: Basic Books, 2011), and Jarron Lanier, You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2010).

[2] Robert M. Sapolsky, “How humans are formed,” OP-ED, Los Angeles Times, August 3, 2014.

[3] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Academic, 2014).

[4] For a further discussion on the general issue of causation, see Nancey Murphy, Theology in a Postmodern Age (Czech Republic: International Baptist Theological Seminary, 2003).

[5] See Craig Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary, New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 101.

[6] For further contextual information, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).

[7] Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 158.

 

 

©2016 T. Dave Matsuo

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