The Global Church Engaging the Nature of Sin
and the Human Condition
Reflecting, Reinforcing, Sustaining, or Transforming
Section II The Global Church Unfolding Transformed in Wholeness
Chapter 5 The Global Church Emerges Distinguished
Very truly, I tell you, no one can participate in the kingdom of God
without being born from above.
All of you must be [dei, necessary by its nature] transformed anew to be my family.
If the global church is not to be shaped by its surrounding fragmentary human context, it will need to be ongoingly accountable for “Where are you?” and “What are you doing here?” Furthermore and deeper, the global church must (dei, by its nature and not out of obligation, ophelo) be distinguished in its defining theology and practice, and its determining ontology and function, so that its identity clearly goes beyond the common human context to embody the qualitative depth and relational significance of the Uncommon. And the interrelated problem we must also awaken to is the reality that the challenge of reductionism is not in decline but in global reality is expanding, intensifying and more subtly pervading. And part of this subtle influence and shaping is not making a clear distinction between the common and the uncommon, because we have narrowed down the uncommon to a referential term of ‘holy’ that does not have functional significance for the church’s theology and practice, even its ontology and function.
Therefore, for the global church to emerge distinguished, by its nature all of us composing the global church must both neutralize reductionism’s defining influence from the human context (surrounding and global) pervading our persons, relationships and churches, and also be transformed from the common’s fragmentary shaping to the Uncommon’s wholeness. This will require the process of redemptive change, which will necessitate openness by the church to examine established ways and embrace the uncommon path.
Part of reductionism’s pervasive subtlety among God’s people is to promote the status quo—which includes fixating on the secondary—and thereby to ignore or even resist the innermost changes necessary for what’s primary and thus significant to God. This recurring dynamic provides the context for Jesus’ defining interaction with Nicodemus in the above Scripture, who jolted the status quo embedded in the secondary that Nicodemus represented. This interaction also provides the necessary launching context for the global church to unfold distinguished. Yet, to unfold distinguished the global church must first emerge distinguished. To fully understand the significance of this interaction for the church beyond the traditional rendering of Jesus’ words (just “born again”), it needs to be located in its complete context. For it is only at the intersection of the trajectory and the path implicit to this context does the global church emerge to be distinguished.
As we listen to the interaction between Jesus and Nicodemus, it seems reasonable to assume some matters about Nicodemus. He came to Jesus that night for answers to questions that were framed by his Jewish identity, by his involvement as a ruling member (Sanhedrin) in Israel (v.1) and as one of her teachers (v.10); thus he came with the expectations associated with their Scripture, which were shaped likely by an interpretive framework from Second Temple Judaism and no doubt by a perceptual lens sociopolitically sensitized to Roman rule. While Nicodemus came to Jesus as an individual person, his query was as the collective identity of Israel and the corporate life and practice of a Pharisee’s (of whatever variation) Judaism. With his feet planted in this status quo, he also ventured beyond it to know who came (“from God,” v.2) and to understand what had come.
Jesus understood Nicodemus’ query and anticipated his questions that certainly related to God’s promises for Israel’s deliverance (salvation), the Messiah and God’s kingship in the Mediterranean world. Therefore, Jesus immediately focused on “the kingdom of God” (v.3), the OT eschatological hope, about which Nicodemus was probably more concerned in the present than the future. Yet, the whole of God’s kingship and sovereign rule is integral to the OT, and thus a primary focus of Nicodemus’ query, however provincial. The conversation that followed evidences a purpose in John’s Gospel to clearly distinguish and make definitive the whole of God’s thematic relational action of grace in response to the human condition—first, in continuation to Israel and then to the nations—that is, to unfold the history of God’s salvation. Yet, the language communicated in this conversation became an issue, and this proved to be revealing not only for Nicodemus but for all he represented—as well as for all who would follow, even through a postmodern period.
Nicodemus apparently realized that someone or something different had appeared in their context than traditionally existed. Accordingly, he directly pursued Jesus to determine who came and what had come—which is a pursuit that too many Christians ignore, assuming they have the answers. When Jesus responded quickly with the kingdom of God (v.3), our common focus on his words features “born again” with a narrowed-down view without paying attention to his kingdom language. Yet, Jesus’ response highlighted trajectories of the old and the new path that now converged, if not collided. Unless we understand what intersects here, the most that will emerge is the narrow view of “born again” and the subtle propagation of the status quo. This was who and what challenged Nicodemus and continues to extend urgently to us today. God indeed “so loved the world,” but our knowledge and understanding of God’s response in who came and what has come are often incomplete, perhaps found in the dark like Nicodemus.
Trajectories of the old include reductionism’s trajectory, which also converged in the OT to misguide Israel’s trajectory of the covenant. In the OT trajectory, Moses distinguished Israel from all other nations, because Israel initially had the experiential reality of God’s presence and involvement and, on this relational basis, claimed the experiential truth of God’s whole relational terms for covenant relationship together (Dt 4:7-8; Ps 147:19-20, cf. Gen 17:1). God’s terms were not to be added to or subtracted from (Dt 4:2; 12:32; Jer 26:2; Rev 22:18-19); for example, even worship must not be “in their way” but distinguished from the common in the surrounding contexts (Dt 12:30-31). In spite of the experiential truth of covenant relationship together, Israel’s trajectory of the covenant converged with reductionism’s trajectory to compose the trajectory of the old—not the OT trajectory Moses clearly distinguished for God’s people. Part of this trajectory of the old was what Nicodemus brought to the interaction with Jesus that predisposed him (and those he represented) to a messianic search essentially for a ‘salvation of the old’—a quantitative result of reductionism. This trajectory of the old was to collide with the path of the new (‘salvation of the new’).
What emerges from salvation and being born again (from above), and is synonymous with eternal life and the eschatological hope, is the kingdom of God (or heaven, used by Mt to be indirect in reverence for God for Jewish readers). The relational outcome of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed always raises questions and related issues. The primary questions involved in the interpretive issue of the kingdom are inseparable: (1) what is the kingdom that has come? and (2) when does the kingdom emerge? As much as the imminence of the kingdom has been debated, I contend this cannot be adequately answered until the kingdom itself is sufficiently defined and understood. When this is understood, I further emphasize that the question of its imminence becomes secondary—not unimportant, only less significant in the eschatological plan of God’s thematic action. This discussion may appear to be of concern only to the academy, when in fact it is of defining relevance for the global church.
The term “kingdom of God” is not found in the OT, yet the reality and expectation of God’s kingship and sovereign rule as vested in Messiah are embedded in the OT. The issue then and now is how the Scriptures are approached, and thereby how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
When some Pharisees questioned Jesus about the coming of the kingdom of God, he could have replied as he did with Nicodemus: “You study and teach the Scriptures but do you not understand this?” (cf. Jn 3:10) Yet, the clear implication of such a reply came in another response he gave elsewhere: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21).
The kingdom of God cannot be reduced to quantitative aspects, though it certainly involves them in secondary ways that can never be made primary to determine God’s kingdom. The kingdom can only be defined in whole by qualitative terms, which vulnerably involves the whole person (signified by the heart); however, the whole of the kingdom is not contained merely in the individual person and spiritually within us. Conjoined with this definition, the kingdom can only be determined in function by qualitative relational terms directly involving the relationships together necessary to be whole, the whole of God’s whole family dwelling in likeness of the Trinity.
This was the qualitative significance that the whole of the Word embodied to disclose vulnerably the whole and uncommon God for covenant relationship together in “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20). Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ salvific discourses and work with the emphasis of the kingdom of God for all peoples. A Jewish bias, particularly in a reductionist hermeneutic of their Scriptures, would reduce the whole of the kingdom and preclude access by all, or at the very least stratify the access for others—as demonstrated at the temple that Jesus cleaned out. Thus, it is important in Luke’s narrative accounts to interrelate Jesus’ discourses about approaching the Scriptures integrally with understanding the relational significance of the kingdom of God that has come (cf. Lk 10:21).
In Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus came to fulfill God’s covenant promise and the eschatological hope of Israel as God’s people, not as nation-state. Accordingly, Jesus’ kingdom of heaven had continuity from the OT (Mt 3:1-3; 4:12-17, cf. 25:34). Yet, there was also a clear qualitative distinction about this kingdom (Mt 5:3,10,20; 7:21; 12:48-50; 18:3; 19:14). While the kingdom of heaven was an extension of the old covenant and the fulfillment of its covenant promise, there arrived also directly with Immanuel—the vulnerably present and intimately involved “God with us”—a new and deeper covenant relationship together that he composed for the kingdom of heaven. In relational terms, Jesus fulfilled both the quantitative terms of the old covenant and its qualitative relational significance, which Jesus vulnerably embodied for the direct experience of this covenant relationship together in its new and deeper relational process. Furthermore, Jesus appeared to further associate this relational significance with his church (ekklesia, gathered body, Mt 16:18-19), which involved building (oikodomeo, to build a house, v.18, whose root is oikos) his household family (oikos and kingdom together in Mt 12:25). Building “with me” is in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love to “gather with me” (synago, Mt 12:30, the root for synagogue, the counterpart to ekklesia) the family of God, both signifying and constituting “the kingdom of God has come to you” (12:28).
Therefore, after Jesus disclosed to his disciples “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (mysterion, hidden, hard to understand because undivulged, Mt 13:11-51), he made the following definitive for every teacher of the covenant relationship who has been made a functioning disciple (matheteuo, rendered inadequately in NRSV as “trained”) in the kingdom of heaven: as persons belonging to the household family of God, they openly share the qualitative relational significance of the new covenant relationship together as well as the fulfillment of the old (Mt 13:52). This involves the full soteriology of both what Jesus saved from and what he saved to—the conjoint function of his relational work of grace only for new covenant relationship together, and thus for only the transformation to wholeness of persons and relationships. Anything less renders salvation incomplete to ‘salvation of the old’.
Yet, the mysteria (pl.) of the kingdom can remain hidden even though they were vulnerably disclosed by Jesus and made directly accessible even to “little children.” This happens for two important reasons, which Jesus identified at the beginning of the above discourse with his disciples (with the parables of the kingdom directed to the crowds, Mt 13:13). First, Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven were disclosed only for covenant relationship together, not for the quantitative aspects and functional implications of his kingly rule. The latter become the focus determined by a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which Jesus identified as an ongoing issue in Israel’s history (vv.13-14). Predisposed by reductionism, what they paid attention to and ignored precluded their understanding (syniemi, denotes putting the pieces together into a whole) and prevented them from perceiving deeply (horao, not merely to see but means to pay attention to a person to recognize their significance, encounter their true nature and to experience them). Furthermore, their whole person had been reduced (signified by “their heart has grown dull”) to function without the critical significance of both qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness, thereby biasing what they paid attention to and ignored. This had a direct relational consequence “to be apart” from the whole and uncommon God, to which God’s thematic relational work of grace in Jesus would respond if they opened their heart (v.15).
This points to the second important reason the kingdom remains hidden despite Jesus’ vulnerable disclosure and intimate accessibility. Jesus began this discourse saying “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not” (v.11). This was not a selective bias by Jesus showing preferential treatment to some while denying access to others, which he appeared to embed in a system of inequitable distribution (v.12). The significance rather was about relationship and its reciprocity, distinguishing the involvement in the relational epistemic process that Jesus made clear (Lk 10:21; cf. Mk 4:24-25). Jesus was pointing to the terms necessary for the nature of the relational process he was defining, and to the relational outcome or consequence of its ongoing experience or lack thereof. “To know” (ginosko, experience) was not mere referential information, for example, of propositional truths to quantify in a belief (or theological) system. This was experiential truth that “has been given” (didomi in Gk perfect tense, passive voice), hereby illuminating the experiential reality of Jesus’ relational communication of this kingdom knowledge in relational terms “to you” and stressing his ongoing relational process for his disciples to respond back to and be involved with him only in relational terms for their experience of the truth of new covenant relationship together. This reciprocal relational involvement in his relational process is the nothing-less-and-no-substitute terms necessary for whole knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of heaven—the qualitative relational terms Jesus illuminated, and that he affirmed the disciples engaged, however imperfectly, while the others did not (vv.16-17).
These whole terms for relationship are the terms for adherence that Jesus defined for his disciples (mathetai). These relational terms for adherence to Jesus are inherent in being his disciples (matheteuo), not only for teachers of the covenant relationship (in his above definitive statement, 13:52) but for all his followers to have qualitative relational significance in the kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel takes matheteuo very seriously, given the evangelist’s emphasis on discipleship. Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel to record a specific imperative in Jesus’ Great Commission, which is “make disciples (matheteusate, imperative of matheteuo) of all nations” (Mt 28:19). This further composes the nature and integrity of reciprocal relationship in his kingdom.
These are the qualitative relational terms necessary for new covenant relationship together with the whole and uncommon God and for the experiential reality of God’s kingdom to emerge. Without the function of whole relationship together in Jesus’ relational context and process, there is no experiential truth of the kingdom of God, regardless of whether the kingdom is ‘already’ (present) and/or ‘not yet’ (future).
The process to the new is what Jesus’ salvific work saved us to: the kingdom of God, or its equivalence in John’s Gospel, eternal life. John’s Gospel replaces “kingdom” language with eternal life, possibly in part to avoid any conflicts such language could create with Gentiles, yet more importantly to provide the further and deeper significance of the kingdom in the relational context and process of the whole of Jesus. The kingdom that had come came embodied in Jesus, the whole of the Word. As he told Nicodemus, the qualitative relational shape of the whole and uncommon God’s kingdom was “born from above,” not by human shaping but born new by the Spirit as the new creation in the image of the relational ontology of the whole of God, thereby made whole in new relationship together in likeness of the Trinity—just as Jesus asked the Father in his formative family prayer (Jn 17). Only as the trajectory of the old and the path of the new collide at the intersection revealed to Nicodemus can and does the relational outcome of the new emerge and unfold. On this basis, the kingdom of God indeed signifies more than God’s kingly rule; and Jesus embodied that significance and constituted the kingdom in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love for this new covenant relationship together—functioning beyond the quantitative limits of the old to intimate relationship together in the very likeness of the relational ontology (zoe) of the Trinity. Only the vulnerable relational involvement of Jesus’ whole ontology and function distinguishes who came and what has come.
Therefore, Jesus’ salvific work and the kingdom must be understood in this further and deeper relational context and process. The whole of God and God’s action are only about relationship, relationship together, covenant relationship together in the whole and uncommon God’s whole vulnerable presence and intimate dwelling, which certainly then is only on God’s qualitative relational terms. And if God’s whole terms for relationship are interpreted only as kingly rule, this would reduce the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ relational work of grace in agape-love involvement to fulfill God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. Historically such rule has been wrongly imposed on others in the name of God, as the global South is well aware. Relationship, by the nature of the relational ontology of the Trinity, however, cannot be decreed, legislated, otherwise imposed for conformity, nor can it be unilateral, all of which are assumed in the primacy of kingly rule. In contrast, God’s kingdom is qualitatively defined irreducibly and relationally determined nonnegotiably by the whole relationship of God vulnerably revealed by Jesus, and thereby functions in whole relationship together in likeness of the Trinity. And this qualitative relational basis exposes our shaping of who came and what has come in our theology and practice as simply fragmentary terms without significance, and therefore without the experiential reality of this whole relational outcome.
The shape of the kingdom of God as the whole of God’s intimate dwelling cannot emerge from reductionism—notably when we assume that we are not reduced or fragmented. Reductionism always counters the relationships of the whole, separating or distancing persons in the relationships to be whole—for example, by stratifying relationships in a system of inequality, which Jesus found operating in the temple and throughout the surrounding context. Revisiting the disciples’ dispute about which of them was greatest, Jesus redefined the common perception of ruling in relationship together in his kingdom by composing their relationships in unstratified intimate involvement together without relational distance (Lk 22:24-30). His clarification and correction both pointed them back to the function of “little children” and the need for redemptive change for the new relationship together in God’s kingdom (Mt 18:1-4), and pointed ahead to intimate and equalized relationship together with the veil removed (as Paul distinguished, 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 2:14-22). This was the kingdom that Jesus embodied and distinguished for his followers, which was incompatible with reductionism and its counter-relational workings; therefore, their intersection was both inevitable and necessary.
Reductionism reshapes the kingdom of God into ontological simulations, and distorts its shape even with epistemological illusions. Consequently, we need to fully understand Jesus’ relational context and process for the whole of his kingdom to expose the presence and influence of reductionism. The only shape constituting the kingdom of God emerges from the whole of Jesus embodying the whole relationship of God for new relationship together in likeness, thereby fulfilling God’s thematic relational action in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God’s whole family. Jesus embodies for us the path that transforms to the new—the path which by necessity collides with the trajectory of the old, in order for the kingdom into the global church family to emerge and unfold distinguished, and so that the global church will unfold whole as family for all persons and nations.
Jesus illuminated the intersection at which by necessity converged and collided the trajectory of the old and the path of the new for (1) our whole understanding of who came and what has come, and for (2) the relational outcome of belonging to and participating in the whole of God’s family. Therefore, when Jesus communicated that the uncommon kingdom is “within you” (en, inside, Lk 17:21), any measured-temporal sense of the kingdom is incomplete and cannot be narrowed down to “among you collectively,” and thus be considered present (‘already’, realized eschatology), or narrow down “within you” to be understood as merely an inward (spiritual) nature pointing to the future (‘not yet’, future eschatology). It is important for our whole understanding to recognize that Jesus addressed the issue between reductionism of the kingdom to mere quantitative terms as opposed to the qualitative integrity of the whole of the kingdom’s relational significance. Failing to make this distinction is the major issue of the kingdom in its past, present and future—in Israel’s past, in Jesus’ present, in the whole of God’s thematic action in relational progression to the future—which directly involves how the Scriptures are approached, and how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to. The global church today is accountable for these issues, because they directly interrelate to how the church will emerge.
When we also adequately address this major issue, we more congruently follow Jesus on his relational path for the outcome of what has come. And his relational path of the new unmistakably brings us to this intersection, unavoidably colliding with the trajectory of the old—including our salvation of the old. Only from this intersection can and does the global church emerge distinguished; and we need to recognize further where this has been incomplete in the ontology and function of who came and the theology and practice of what has come.
In terms of ontology and function, for Jesus the kingdom was the relational realm of his qualitative focus from outside the universe (cf. Jn 18:36) that encompassed the whole and uncommon God’s whole presence and dwelling. In Paul’s theology and practice, he had a more localized focus—yet not determined from human contextualization—on the qualitative kingdom (e.g. Rom 14:17) for the experiential reality of Christ’s kingdom in the church as the pleroma of Christ, the embodying of the whole of God’s whole vulnerable presence and intimate dwelling (Eph 1:23). This transition of the kingdom into church and their whole convergence by necessity goes through the cross of Christ, the process of which is often misperceived in Paul given his seemingly central focus on the cross. Any issue between the kingdom and the cross emerges from how Jesus and Paul are perceived and whether they are congruent or even compatible. The importance of the kingdom to Paul is not reflected in the amount of attention that he gives to the cross over a quantitative focus on the kingdom. If one integrally understands the meaning and significance of both kingdom and cross, as did Paul, then they are inseparable and thus irreducible and nonnegotiable to the shaping and variations seen in theology and function, both in church and the academy. From the transformation only from the cross is the relational outcome of the new creation church family composing the kingdom of God’s dwelling in new covenant relationship together (Lk 22:20; 1 Cor 11:25; 2 Cor 5:17). Understanding the whole of Paul is critical to understanding the whole in Paul, otherwise there is only fragmentary knowledge and understanding of who came and what has come.
Perhaps Nicodemus was already aware that the kingdom had undergone human shaping, notably as nation-state in Israel’s history and Second Temple Judaism. Paul, though remaining as a Jew, certainly became aware of this human shaping to expose it (e.g. Rom 2:28-29; 9:6-8) along with its parallels of human shaping of the church. The latter occurs even with good intentions of serving and sharing the gospel, both of which involve the human shaping of persons and relationships, and thus reinforcing or sustaining the human relational condition. The kingdom into church both illuminates the qualitative significance and distinguishes the relational significance of the whole and uncommon God’s whole presence and dwelling emerging from Jesus and unfolding into Paul into the persons and relationships composing the global church in wholeness. As Jesus revealed in this interaction, all this emerges and unfolds in contrast and conflict with the human shaping both of persons and relationship together that “must be transformed anew to be my family.”
The kingdom of God extended into the church to be distinguished in the world similarly to how Moses distinguished Israel in the OT trajectory; but this now is further based on God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement, yet still only by the whole and uncommon God’s relational terms that must not be added to or subtracted from. When the church adds or subtracts from God’s relational terms—as Israel did contrary to Moses’ imperative (Dt 4:2; 12:32)—it shifts to the trajectory of the old and is rendered to ‘salvation of the old’ that no longer distinguished the church’s identity in the world but reduced it in ontology and function (cf. 1 Cor 4:6-7; Rev 22:18-19). As the whole gospel collided with the status quo of the old represented in Nicodemus that night, its shock waves continue to reverberate to awaken us to who came and what has come.
Therefore, the global church not only needs to recognize where its understanding is incomplete in the ontology and function of who came and in its theology and practice of what has come. Unless it also enters this intersection with its own trajectory of the old to collide with Jesus’ whole relational path of the new, the global church will not be transformed in order to emerge distinguished as the new creation family, so that its persons and relationships will indeed belong to and participate in the whole and uncommon God’s whole and uncommon family. This is the only relational outcome from the whole of both who came and what has come that awaits the global church and the persons and relationships composing it integrally from the global South and North.
The relational path of the new embodied by Jesus is the uncommon path distinguished from the context and process of the common prevailing in human life. The uncommon is distinguished from the common at all levels of human life, from the structural, systemic and institutional to the sociocultural, familial and individual, in order to have the integrity integral to the new. Underlying all these levels of human life and interrelating them for some type of collective life is anthropology—that is, the basic ontology and function of the persons and relationships composing all human life, without which human life is nonexistent. The primacy of persons and relationships is the key to human life at all levels, and these persons and relationships are integral for composing the path of the new.
Accordingly, yet unmistakably distinguished from the common at all levels, Jesus embodied in whole relational terms what has come, which he distinguished by who came to embody the persons and relationship together of the whole of God, the uncommon Trinity. It was critical, therefore, for this Messiah to come with “a sword” rather than “to bring peace”—that is, a narrowed-down peace lacking wholeness and thus not distinguished from the common (Mt 10:34-36; Lk 12:51-53, cf. Jn 14:27). These are difficult words from Jesus to listen to for those waiting for a messiah with a different sword and for those in the global church expecting a savior with a different peace. But, the gospel is incomplete without complete Christology (which integrates the Trinity); likewise, our knowledge and understanding of what has come cannot be whole with an incomplete Christology (which fragments God, e.g. by being overly christocentric). The primacy that distinguished who came is Jesus’ whole person, and that integrally distinguished what has come is the uncommon relationship together in wholeness. Only the primacy of whole persons and relationship together in wholeness distinguishes the whole and uncommon God and God’s whole and uncommon family from the fragmentary and common shaping of persons and relationships specific to the human context and terms.
It is critical, therefore, for the global church to take Jesus’ words seriously in order to be distinguished in wholeness by Jesus’ sword (not the common’s sword, cf. Mt 26:5053) without any illusion and simulations of peace. The global church (including related peace activists) must know and understand whether its persons and relationships are distinguished in this uncommon primacy or only distinct in common human shaping. Since the commonization of life prevails in all levels of the human context surrounding the church, global North and South Christians and churches cannot assume that they are not reduced or fragmented.
The global church is not a recent phenomenon, which has seen its center shift to the global South. Its persons and relationships were initially defined in the beginning at creation, having certainly been shaped by the human context from the beginning. As these persons and relationships converged, the global church was initially determined when it emerged from Jesus’ reconstruction of the temple as God’s house for all nations; and it was integrally determined when the temple was raised up after three days in Christ’s body, who constituted ‘the body of Christ’ as his new creation global church family. The truth of these metaphors is not composed in their doctrinal truth (even with certainty) but in the experiential truth of this experiential reality composed in relational terms over referential terms: Only on the basis (the intersection and collision) of the whole and uncommon God’s relational context and process enacted in direct response to the human condition of persons and relationships did the global church emerge and does it unfold. Thus, the primacy of persons and relationships integral to this relational outcome is nonnegotiable to any other terms propagated by the global church, even if doctrinally correct.
When the global church examines whether it is distinguished by the composition of persons and relationships in the beginning, there are two ‘in the beginnings’ that must be accounted for:
The global church ‘in the beginning’ is composed only of persons and relationships of both ‘in the beginnings’, from which the global church emerges distinguished irreducibly and unfolds distinguished nonnegotiably. Without the integration (and related intersection and collision) of both these beginnings, the global church is rendered back ‘from the beginning’ and composed by persons and relationships in reduced ontology and function—regardless of its theology and practice, as demonstrated by the churches in Jesus’ post-ascension critique (Rev 2-3).
Churches in the global North and South must account for their beginning, and therefore need to relinquish any assumption that their persons and relationships are not reduced or fragmented. We need to revisit Jesus and Nicodemus to listen more carefully to the person and pay closer attention to sin as reductionism, and to understand if they merely converge together at this intersection in reduced ontology and function (as witnessed in the primordial garden), or collide with the relational path of the new to whole ontology and function. From the relational path Jesus embodied vulnerably, the body of Christ emerged in whole ontology and function and unfolds distinguished only by persons and relationships integrally determined in wholeness—which is the ‘who came and what has come’ that Paul made definitive for the church in the ecclesiology of the whole only Jesus embodied. Yet, the ongoing reality for the global church is that it unfolds either distinguished in wholeness or reduced in a distinct hybrid (a convergence, not a collision). And Paul gave primacy to persons and relationships to counter ‘from the beginning’ “in order that Satan might not outwit us. For we are not unaware of his schemes” (2 Cor 2:11, NIV).
We know from our previous discussion of ‘from the beginning’ that the challenge and influence of reductionism are subtle and thus often beneath our awareness, or simply ignored. Israel in general and Nicodemus in particular reflected having assumed reductionism’s challenge and living under its influence. When Nicodemus responded to Jesus’ intersection with “How can anyone be born anew after having grown old?” (Jn 3:4), he demonstrated an anthropology of the person in reduced ontology and function defined from outer in primarily in quantitative terms—“Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Obviously, Nicodemus didn’t understand Jesus’ relational language and the relational terms composing his path of the new. After Jesus revealed the collision necessary to belong and participate in God’s family dwelling, Nicodemus stated incredulously (as a matter of fact) “How can these things be?” Not only was Nicodemus narrowed down as a person to outer in, his epistemic field and thus interpretive lens were also narrowed down to the probable of referential terms prevailing in human contextualization (similar to science today)—which then referentializes the Word (even by biblical scholars today).
Referential terms narrow the Word to the transmission of information and knowledge, all based on a narrowed-down epistemic field that no longer distinguishes the Word’s primacy in relational terms. The Word was embodied, however, from beyond these limits and constraints and composed in relational terms for the communication of the whole and uncommon God to human persons for the only purpose of relationship together in the primacy of their wholeness—not to transmit information and knowledge with relative certainty. Understandably then, to be expected to emerge from Nicodemus’ narrowed-down epistemic field and referential lens, “How can this collision happen at this intersection?” (v.9) Even as “a teacher of Israel and the Scripture and yet you do not understand these things” (v.10) is a common conclusion (even by scholars in the academy today) because of his narrowed-down person, epistemic field and referentialization of the Word.
Nicodemus, and those he represented, reflected ‘from the beginning’ and were primarily determined by what emerged from the beginning: an anthropology of persons and relationships in reduced ontology and function, with its ongoing limits and constraints operating within a narrowed-down epistemology that engages in the referentialization of the Word—all countering the primacy of persons and relationships in whole ontology and function in order to reshape the qualitative image and relational likeness of God, and to referentialize the whole and uncommon God’s relational communication down to secondary information by which to gain, use and teach for self-determination. Does Nicodemus also represent any Christians today, especially teachers in the church and academy?
“Did God say those words in referential terms?” The referential truth, however, is that “You and your relationships will not be reduced and fragmented.” In fact, “Your eyes and epistemology will be opened.” And on this basis of “good and evil,” “you will become like God in the comparative process of self-determination.”
The variations composing the spectrum of what has unfolded ‘from the beginning’ are more subtle than obvious; and with such pervasive influence reductionism shapes persons, relationship and churches composing the global church contrary to ‘in the beginning’. And reductionism’s most subtle influence pervading the global church—
which emerged in the global North and unfolds in the global South—is the referentialization of the Word and its conjoined implicit or explicit reduced theological anthropology. For example, from the heights of the academy down to children’s Sunday school classes, what characterizes theological education is the transmission of information, albeit about God yet in limited referential terms. Such knowledge referring to God is narrowed down to the parts that God does and/or has, which is transmitted to compose the content of theological education for persons to accumulate about God and use as needed. Lacking or absent is the primary Subject face of God communicating with persons in the primacy of relationship for the involvement necessary to truly know and understand God face to face, heart to heart, whereby persons grow in reciprocal relationship together in God’s family. Who came was not in referential terms. When we understand who came in relational terms, we come face to face with the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole and uncommon God, who communicates only in the primacy of persons and relationships.
Where the global church has transposed God’s relational terms to referential terms of who came and what has come, and has converted to the common practice prevailing for persons and relationships (e.g. in education or in culture), the global church needs to awaken ‘from the beginning’ and intersect its trajectory of the old (in commonization) to collide with Jesus’ uncommon relational path of the new in order to emerge distinguished ‘in the beginnings’. Perhaps this is a wake-up call just as Jesus gave to the church at Sardis because their theology and practice were “not found complete” (Rev 3:2), reflecting an incomplete ontology and function without wholeness. Only in the transformation of persons and relationships can and will God’s global church family unfold in the primacy of persons and relationships in whole ontology and function, and thereby compose the body of Christ in the qualitative image and relational likeness of who came and what has come. Nothing less than the primacy of the Word in whole relational terms and no substitutes for the primacy of persons and relationships emerge and unfold in the wholeness of this relational outcome.
When the whole and uncommon God revealed God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement in the human context, the presence and involvement of who came were not embodied by the common terms prevailing. Commonization is an ongoing issue not just in theology but pervades practice with even greater consequence. What has come distinguished by who came also cannot be embodied by the common terms prevailing, or it relationally disconnects with the presence and involvement of who came. This disconnect may not be apparent in church theology yet it is evident in church practice. Relational distance is the issue of theological education discussed above and the key issue for church practice, both of which need to reconnect with who came in order to be distinguished from the common prevailing.
For the dwelling of God’s presence and involvement to be distinguished from the common requires relational connection with persons in relationship together who are also distinguished from the common function prevailing for persons and relationships. In other words, the ongoing presence and involvement of God necessitates the primacy of persons and relationships in whole ontology and function, which ongoingly must by nature be distinguished from the common prevailing in order to integrally compose God’s new global church family—integrally composing the whole body of Christ with the primacy of persons and relationships. Without the primacy of persons and relationships there is no relational connection with the ongoing vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole and uncommon God—regardless of the scholarship of the referential information accumulated about God or its related doctrinal purity and certainty (as demonstrated by the church at Ephesus, Rev 2:2-4). Referential language and terms narrow down the context and process of God’s revelation without their relational significance, consequently God’s presence and involvement lack the experiential truth and reality to compose the primacy necessary for persons and relationship together to connect with the whole and uncommon God—relationally beyond having fragmentary knowledge about parts of God.
The body of Christ, whether local, regional or global, has had difficulty unfolding in spite of its distinguished emergence in the beginning. The major issues for this ongoing difficulty involve (1) a narrow epistemic field and interpretive lens that results in an incomplete or selective ontology and function of who came, and (2) a reduced theological anthropology composing a fragmentary theology and practice of what has come. The embodied Christ and the body of Christ converge on Jesus’ relational path of the new for the body of Christ to emerge whole in likeness of the embodied Christ. Whether the body of Christ continues to unfold whole depends on its relational connection with the embodied whole of Christ (in complete Christology) and thereby is determined by the primacy of its persons and relationships in likeness. The body of Christ at every level and with all its components needs to reexamine its condition and address where it is in need of both urgent care and the nurturing for growth and development.
When we think of the body of Christ, we usually think of various parts, hopefully but not necessarily that make up the complete body. Yet, in the physical body the parts are important but not primary, and how they are interrelated is the key to making the body complete. When Paul made definitive the body metaphor for the church (1 Cor12:12-31), the parts and their interrelatedness have to be understood in what’s primary in order for the body to be complete, that is, for the church to be whole. What’s primary for the church must be distinguished from and should not be confused with what’s good for the church from the beginning.
In terms of our human body, it is evident that it has diversity of parts, each with a specific function, which hopefully yet not always serve for the well-being of the total body. This result is certainly a health issue of our body parts, their function and how well they integrate to serve the growth, development and maintenance of our physical body. What is also obvious in the body-care for most (if not all) of us is how we look at the diversity of our body parts differently, viewing their functions with different values and priorities, which then structures our body in stratified body parts whose attention and care become selective accordingly. The ongoing result of this skewed approach to the body is a fragmented body condition that struggles for well-being and is unable to be whole—in spite of good intentions, limited intervening measures, and other hopeful practices, which at best only create an illusion of well-being and try to simulate being whole. Does this sound familiar at all to how we perceive and address the body of Christ?
The fragmentation of the body (human and of Christ) emerges directly from reduced anthropology that composes persons by the parts of what they have and do, and on this fragmentary basis, determine the relationships such persons engage. When Paul unequivocally defined the body of Christ, he did not use a reduced theological anthropology. Nor did he use a reduced ontology and function of Christ to determine the body of Christ (Eph 1:23; 2:14,16; 4:12-13,16; Col 2:9-10; 3:15). The wholeness of Christ’s ontology and function was the only determinant (brabeuo, Col 3:15) for the body of Christ, and that required the theological anthropology of whole ontology and function for the persons and relationships composing the church body (again, local, regional and global). For Paul, this wholeness was irreducible for the embodied Christ and nonnegotiable for the body of Christ (e.g. by referential terms). How then did he define the diversity of parts and determine their function such that the body benefits to emerge whole, and continues to grow and develop in the wholeness in likeness of Christ’s whole?
Just as in the human body, the parts are important but not primary for Paul (Rom 12:4-5). Paul composed the church body with “members,” who can be seen as parts of the whole yet who must by their nature be perceived whole-ly only as persons. This perception has certainly been problematic for church membership—both by church leaders and church members in general. Parts are secondary to persons and it is their primacy by whom Paul composed each member of the body. This not only qualified who the parts are but also defines what the significance of the parts is and how they serve the well-being, growth and development of the whole body.
The initial focus that Paul gave to the diversity of parts involved the gifts given by the Spirit, which includes by the Son and the Father for the whole of God (1 Cor 12:4-11), that needs to be distinguished from our common notion of spiritual gifts. The latter occupies the primary way members narrowly see each other and thus prevails as the common shaping of how persons are defined and relationships are determined in the church. Like our view of the human body, the diversity of spiritual gifts are seen differently, with their functions having different values and priorities in the church (or even in the academy), which have stratified how persons are defined and relationships are determined. Paul countered this reduced theological anthropology and fragmentation of persons and relationships with the relational connection and involvement with the whole of God’s Spirit (“same Spirit, same Lord, same God”) to constitute the primacy of relationship and the relational connection necessary for persons to be distinguished beyond spiritual gifts and to belong to each other in relationship together (cf. Rom12:5).
Paul illuminated that it is the primacy of the Spirit’s presence and involvement that “is given the manifestation” (phanerosis, 1 Cor 12:7) in relational terms “to each member person” over their gifts in order to constitute the church body’s primacy in persons and relationships together—and not in, with and by the gifts given by the Spirit, as important and necessary as they are. And therefore, the only relational purpose for the Spirit’s presence and involvement is neither in the distribution of gifts nor in their needed empowerment—even though the Spirit is integral to both without our self-determination (vv.8-11)—but for the relational connection necessary to have the integrating relational outcome “for bringing together [symphero] each person in the relationships necessary for wholeness of the church body” (v.7). It is inadequate, even contrary, to render symphero as “the common good” (NRSV, NIV, ESV) for two reasons: (1) it reduces the ontology and function of the Spirit’s presence and involvement, which shifts the focus to members’ gifts over their persons, and (2) it assumes both that such gifts can have the same (or better) results as persons can, and thus that what’s good for the church can emerge from a reduced theological anthropology composing ‘good without wholeness’.
The notion of the common good for the church was never what Paul illuminated for the primacy of the Spirit’s presence and involvement with the church body and the persons and relationships composing its primacy (see also Eph 2:22). What unfolds in this relational process is reciprocal relationship together, the nature of which requires (demands as the relational imperative) this integral involvement: (1) the primary involvement of the whole person, neither fragmented by nor preoccupied with gifts, and (2) the primacy of involvement given to the whole of God’s Spirit in order to transform the church’s persons and relationships to wholeness in likeness of the whole of God. For Paul, the primacy of persons and relationships composing the church in wholeness emerges only from the primacy of the persons and relationship in the whole of God (2 Cor 3:16-17; Rom 8:6,11,14-16), and unfolds only in this primacy in likeness of this whole God, the Trinity (2 Cor 3:18; Eph 4:24; Col 3:10-11). This is not to say that Paul was a trinitarian but that, ever since the Damascus road, he experienced the reality and truth of the whole of God, which made his monotheism complete (pleroma, Col 1:19) and the body of Christ complete in likeness as the pleroma of Christ (Eph 1:23; 4:12-13).
The primacy of the church body’s persons and relationships was fully defined in Paul’s metaphor when he transitions from the diversity of gifts to the diversity of persons (1 Cor 12:12-27). This is a crucial transition for church theology and practice in order to be distinguished in what is primary to God, which should not be confused with our common views of what’s good for the church.
The primary will not and cannot be distinguished in the referentialization of the Word and by a reduced theological anthropology, because, as Paul made definitive, “the body is not composed of one member but of many”; and this counters such a narrowed-down lens that would focus on the secondary parts of members. Whether unintentionally or not, the consequence for members is that their person is subtly transposed to a secondary position and a fragmentary condition. This is not the ontology and function of members that is primary to God and that Paul makes primary in likeness for God’s church family.
As noted earlier about the Corinthian church, Paul did not formulate this metaphor in a theological vacuum or isolated in an ivory tower but rather composed the necessary solution to that fragmented church and the consequences of reduced ontology and function on its persons and relationships (e.g. 1 Cor 1:11-13; 3:1-4,21-22; 4:6). Accordingly, we need to apply the body metaphor to the contemporary church, its fragmentation and the consequences of reduced ontology and function on its persons and relationships. As we do, the primacy of both persons and relationships must neither be separated nor addressed with different priorities or emphases. This process becomes subtle and easily ambiguous. In human consciousness (discussed in chap. 3), our identity emerges either from self-consciousness in reduced ontology and function) or person-consciousness (in whole ontology and function). In self-consciousness, the individual person is highlighted, which may appear to give it primacy when in reality the person has been narrowed down to one’s parts, thereby centered on and revolved around one’s self for determining self-identity. With this self-determination of self-consciousness, relationships become secondary and always engaged by the primacy of self; this self, moreover, is our default mode unless willfully shifted to person-consciousness. We need to listen to this ambiguous person in the church in order to attend to the fragmentation of the church’s diversity and emerge distinguished with person-consciousness in the primacy of both persons and relationships.
The diversity of human persons is a reality of life that Paul, on the one hand, highlights for the body’s “many members…whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free” (1 Cor 12:12-13). The church body is not a homogeneous unit—contrary to a recent church growth principle—such that all the members conform to be as “an eye,” that is, as “a single prominent or dominant member” (vv.17,19). Homogeneity in whatever form constrains the integral function and reduces the whole ontology of the church body to be God’s dwelling vitally for the diversity of all persons, peoples, nations (v.18, cf. the temple Jesus cleansed for all nations). On the other hand, Paul renders all human diversity secondary by dissolving the distinctions of such differences and negating any significance attached to them. This may appear contrary to a global church, yet we have to remember that Paul was fighting against reductionism in the church and its influence promoting illusion and simulation in church practice. Therefore, his body metaphor by necessity pointed to and exposed common church practices that reduce persons to more-or-less value on a comparative scale in a fragmenting process and consequently stratifies their relationships, thereby preventing persons and relationships from being whole together as God’s new church family (vv.21-27, cf. Gal 3:26-28; Col 3:11). What Paul also does here is give voice to the reality of the human condition in the church and the need to transform our condition, not merely with secondary changes but in the primary.
What emerges unmistakably from Paul’s theology and practice of human diversity in the church is the unequivocal primacy of persons and relationships to compose the whole church body. Integrally important, this primacy of persons and relationships can only be distinguished by their whole ontology and function, without any of the distinctions of spiritual gifts and human diversity that reflect, reinforce and sustain reduced ontology and function. For Paul, the global church as the whole and uncommon God’s family is composed in wholeness, and thus distinguished whole, by nothing less and no substitutes of all the persons belonging to the church in the primacy of relationship together as family (as he made definitive in Eph 2:11-22).
When the primacy of persons and relationships emerges unequivocally to distinguish the global church, its persons, relationships and churches are challenged to grow and develop in wholeness in order for the global church to be distinguished unmistakably in likeness of the whole and uncommon God—just as Jesus prayed for his global family (Jn 17:13-26).
After Paul illuminated the primacy of persons and relationships (hereafter ‘primacy’) that distinguishes the body of Christ, he transitioned to how this primacy has functional significance for the church body: “I show you a still more excellent way,” or “the most excellent way” (1 Cor 12:31, NIV). That is, the way, road, path (hodos) that Paul illuminates is not a method but a relational function “beyond comparison” (kath’ hyperbole) to any human practice for persons and relationships. Thus, when Paul transitioned to love, he did not use a hyperbole to establish an ideal for the church to work toward. This is an interesting statement since love is a universal ideal that concerns all global people groups. In fact, the love that Paul transitioned to is usually perceived as this ideal of what to do, which would be the most excellent way to define a person or a church. Yet, for many Christians, this ideal of love is essentially a hyperbole that is either not achievable or not practical for what to do in everyday function, even on Sundays. And there is some truth to this in what the ideal of love likely represents—perfect love (cf. such a lens of 1 Jn 4:18).
Paul, however, did not transition to what to do with the what of love as an ideal. Such practice would fragment persons and relationships in a reduced theological anthropology by how well they measure up to this standard in what they do. Again, this is not the ontology and function of persons and relationships that distinguishes them to God and for Paul, nor with such practice could they have the functional significance of persons and relationships in their primacy. Paul only transitioned to how this primacy has functional significance. And the uncommon path he illuminated is the relational function of love that is composed beyond the common human practice (both within and outside the church) of what to do.
Love beyond human comparison is not a hyperbole but rather the vulnerable relational involvement initiated by the whole of God in relational response to the primacy of our persons, and perhaps secondarily to our situation and circumstances. Therefore, in contrast to a hyperbole, this love is only the relational function of how to be vulnerably involved with other persons (including God) in the primacy of their persons and the relationship; this involvement may include secondary response to their situation and circumstance but not as a substitute for the primacy of relational involvement with their persons. Love as what to do fragments the persons involved and reduces love to a secondary response, which would not be beyond the common ideal and practice of love. Paul made love the relational imperative for Christian persons and their relationships, yet not in order to meet an ideal but in order for their primacy in the church to have the functional significance that “relationally integrates [syndesmos, bond] the ontology and function of God’s church family together in complete wholeness” (Col 3:12-14). When the primacy of persons and relationships in the church (local, regional and global) do not transition in this functional significance, their primacy becomes another ideal like love of what the church should do—which then merely renders it unachievable or impractical. Does this describe the prevailing condition in the contemporary church?
As Paul transitioned to the relational function of love to embody the primacy of persons and relationships in functional significance, we must also transition with him beyond the body metaphor for the church’s function to emerge in the significance of this primacy. Christ’s wholeness embodied the fullness (pleroma, complete, whole) of God (Col 1:19) to embody the church in likeness as the pleroma of Christ (Col 1:20; Eph 1:22-23). This is where church theology and practice often become separated, and church practice is problematic when it is detached from this pleroma theology. Of course, church theology is not helpful if it is fragmentary and not complete. That’s why Paul made it a relational imperative for the church to have Christ’s wholeness (“peace”) be the only determinant for its theology and practice (Col 3:15).
Paul’s transition to the relational function of love by the nature of its primacy also involved the relational function of embodying the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ (the whole church). The church in completeness can only be embodied in likeness of Christ who embodied the whole (pleroma) of God. This wholeness of God defines and determines who the church is and whose the church is in whole theology and practice, which cannot be narrowed down or fragmented and still be pleroma in relationship together both with this God and as this church body. The transition to the relational function that Paul unfolds is pivotal for the church to emerge distinguished not simply as the body of Christ but the pleroma of Christ.
Yet, having this relational clarity of wholeness together is one issue for the church, and living its functional significance in wholeness together is a further issue ongoing in church life and practice. That is, for the church to be whole is one matter, and for the church to live whole and also make whole is another matter. Even so, for Paul these functions are inseparably interrelated in God’s new creation family. This ongoing issue for the church further amplifies the tension and conflict between wholeness and reductionism, which Paul continues to address in his ecclesiology.
As the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function emerges, reductionism and its counter-relational work increasingly seek to exert more indirect and subtle influence to define and determine church life and practice with ontological simulations and epistemological illusions, which Paul illuminated previously to the church at Corinth (2 Cor 11:12-15). In the further theological-functional clarity that Paul illuminates in his transformed pleroma ecclesiology (unfolded in Eph), the functional significance of the church is never assumed but is an ongoing relational imperative for church life and practice in wholeness together; and this includes challenging assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the church. What is this functional significance and how does its dynamic work for wholeness? The following theology and practice distinguish what the global North churches have not paid close attention to and what global South churches need to discover (or recover) as the emerging center of the global church.
In the whole of Paul’s theology, and in the relational progression with Christ (the pleroma of God) and the Spirit (Christ’s relational replacement), God’s people became the relational outcome ‘already’ that emerged in the church (the pleroma of Christ). Yet, for Paul the pleroma of Christ (Eph 1:23) is not the institution of the church but the embodying of the church in the qualitative ontology from inner out and the relational function of love involvement in the whole relationship together of God’s new creation family—integrally in the image of the one God’s qualitative ontology (the ontological One) and in the likeness of the whole of God’s relational function (the relational Whole). Nothing less and no substitutes of who, what and how God is and God’s people are could signify and can constitute their whole ontology and function. More important than as a Jew and a Christian, Paul’s experiential truth as the adopted son in the whole and uncommon God’s family was ‘who he is’ and ‘whose he is’, in whole relationship together, both intimate and equalized, with his sisters and brothers. The immediate implication for the global church of Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology is the urgent need for a paradigm shift in church theology and practice from the body of Christ to the family of Christ. As paradigm shifts involve, this will challenge the church’s traditions, its sociocultural roots, and its underlying theological anthropology for persons and relationships to change—the process of redemptive change that Paul also illuminates for the church as family (Rom 8:5-6,14-16; 12:2).
As we transition with Paul, his ecclesiology deepens our need for a paradigm shift. When Paul defines the church as being reconciled in one body (Eph 2:16) and as equalized persons without distinctions relationally belonging to God’s family (oikeios, 2:19), this oikodome (church family not church building) is further defined as being “joined together” (2:21). Paul is providing further theological-functional clarity to his previous dialogue on the church (1 Cor 12:12-31; Rom 12:5). His earlier relational discourse appears to describe an organic or organizational structure of the church whose parts are interrelated and function in interdependence. Paul deepens the understanding of interrelated parts in interdependence by further defining the relational dynamic involved to make this function in wholeness together (Eph 4:16). This relational process deepens the primacy necessary for persons and relationships; and church leaders notably are accountable to be involved in this relational family process (not organizational management) for the functional significance of the church family’s persons and relationships in their primacy
This oikodome is dynamic, not static, and by its dynamic nature necessitates ongoing growth (“building up,” oikodome) for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function as the pleroma of Christ, as Paul illuminates (4:12-13). Church growth has been commonly approached in quantitative terms and not the primacy of relational terms. The dynamic of oikodome, however, both defines the church family in joint interrelations together, and determines how church family interrelations function in the interdependence necessary for embodying wholeness in its ontology and function. In Paul’s ecclesiology, oikodome is relationship-specific to the church as family, not as a religious group or organization (2:22), and, therefore, the dynamic of oikodome is functionally significant in only the depth of its relational involvement together (the significance of love), not to the extent of its working relations (4:15-16,25). This distinctly identifies two contrasting ways interrelatedness is defined and interdependence is determined, which in function are conflicting and subtly competing. These distinctions are critical to understand and ongoingly are essential to make because each involves a different church ontology and function, with different perceptions of human ontology and function. Thus, this difference determines what is primary or secondary in church practice. Another way to understand this difference is the functional significance between a family and orphanage. Whatever organizational unity and interrelatedness orphans have as members of an orphanage, this cannot substitute for belonging to a family. Yet, many so-called families function without the significance of the primacy of relationship, thereby reducing what should distinguish a family and essentially making their members into relational orphans. Many churches in the global North function as orphanages, while churches in the global South may be filled with relational orphans. This difference is crucial for the global church to address because Jesus made it unequivocal “I will not leave you orphaned”—without family or even within a family (Jn 14:18).
Not surprisingly for Paul, this difference involves the contrast between wholeness and reductionism, and the ongoing issue of ‘who, what and how’ will emerge for the church’s persons and relationships. Oikodome is rooted ‘in Christ’ and thus embodies Christ’s wholeness (Eph 1:23; 2:21). The dynamic of oikodome is a function of the integral relational dynamic of family wholeness in ontology and function, conjointly in the primacy of whole persons and whole persons in whole relationship together (i.e. transformed persons in transformed relationships together). Accordingly, the interrelations of oikodome are constituted only by whole/transformed persons in whole/transformed relationships together both equalized and intimate. The primacy of this distinguished relational process and outcome emerge irreducibly and nonnegotiably, “In him the whole family is integrally joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord”—that is, grows into the uncommon family distinguished from the common prevailing for persons and relationships in the human context.
Reductionism more likely does not blatantly fragment these whole interrelations, for example, as Paul encountered between Jew and Gentile (2:11-12), but more subtly redefines ontology and function for person and church to create distance, detachment or separation in church relations, thereby making relationships together fragmentary. Such fragmentation is effectively accomplished by defining persons from outer in by what they do/have, and, on this narrowed-down basis, creating better-or-less distinctions in stratified relations that prevent deeper relational involvement (cf. 4:2,25). This is accomplished in a subtle yet insidious way when church leaders and church members commonly define themselves by their roles and/or gifts and relate to each other in the church based on their roles or gifts, all for the work of ministry for building up the church. This misleading dynamic may work for group cohesion or organizational identity in building up a gathering, but in reality it signifies a reduced ontology and function for both person and church that renders persons relational orphans and church as an orphanage. This certainly is not the work “created in Christ Jesus” that Paul means for the church (2:10). Such pervasive practice is a major misinterpretation of Paul’s ecclesiology—likely fragmented by using a model from 1 Corinthians out of context—which does not have the relational outcome he defined for whole church interrelations and their function in interdependence (4:11-13). Since we are ongoingly subjected to reductionism, we need to recognize, pay attention and address when we become subject to reductionism’s influence, and thus shaped by it. This urgent matter is not going away for the global church.
It is indispensable for Paul’s ecclesiology that it is based on complete Christology—the pleroma of God embodied by Christ, nothing less (Col 1:19; 2:9). In the primacy distinguished by Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology, the functional significance of church ontology and function emerges as the church lives “created according to the likeness of God” (Eph 4:24; Col 2:9-10). The church, for Paul, is the Father’s new creation family embodied in Christ and raised up by the Spirit in the relational likeness of this whole and uncommon God, who dwells vulnerably and intimately in the relational involvement of love, composing the trinitarian relational context of family love integrated with the trinitarian relational process of family love. If not created and functioning in this likeness, church becomes a gathering from human shaping or construction in likeness of some aspect of human contextualization, which such gathering then often reifies in ontological simulations and epistemological illusions as the body of Christ. This is a pervasive, if not prevailing, condition of the existing church urgently requiring a paradigm shift to the family of Christ and the related changes for embodying the pleroma of Christ.
The body of Christ by itself is insufficient to be the church rooted ‘in Christ’ who embodied the nothing-less-than God in fullness, that is, complete and whole (pleroma). As noted already, Paul was no trinitarian in his theological development, yet his monotheism went beyond the knowledge and understanding of the Shema in Judaism. At the same time, Paul was not overly christocentric. As a model for teachers of theological education, his experiential truth of Jesus and the Spirit in ongoing relationship together gave him whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God (cf. Col 2:2). The relational and functional significance of Paul’s whole God—neither limited by tradition nor constrained by human shaping—constituted him (both by transformation and adoption) as a new creation in God’s family; and only this experiential reality provided the integral relation basis and ongoing relational base for the church as God’s new creation family to be in the relational likeness of this whole and uncommon God whom he himself was experiencing. Paul’s experience, however, was the experiential reality of the primacy of their persons and relationship together, the whole of whom Paul experienced face to face in the intimate relational involvement of God’s family love.
The integral relational function of love that Paul makes the relational imperative for the church is the further unfolding of God’s family love whole-ly embodied by Christ: the trinitarian relational context of family integrated with the trinitarian relational process of family love that embodies the pleroma of Christ as God’s whole family with nothing less and no substitutes of God’s vulnerable presence and intimate involvement. This complete relational involvement by God is the love that Paul prays to be the growing relational reality experienced by the church (Eph 3:17-19, echoing Jesus’ family prayer). Therefore, it should be unmistakable that the church in likeness of the whole of God was not a theological construct in Paul’s ecclesiology. Yet, as a concept this notion has growing interest in modern theology, of course, as the church in likeness of the Trinity; not surprisingly, this trinitarian theology lacks the functional significance of the primacy given to the trinitarian persons and their relationship—notably as it unfolds in the integral relational involvement of God’s family love. Paul’s understanding of the church’s likeness, however, emerged from engagement in the relational epistemic process with the whole and uncommon God beyond the limits and constraints of the common, the synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) of which appears to elude many of his readers even though that was Paul’s relational purpose for the church (Col 2:2; Rom 16:25).
It was natural for Paul that based on his experiential truth of God his theology and practice unfolded in the experiential reality of wholeness. In complete ecclesiology rooted in complete Christology, church ontology and function in likeness of the whole (pleroma) of God is not a construct, but rather this experiential reality is the embodying of the relational function of love that emerges from whole persons in the primacy of whole relational involvement together with both God and each other. This natural transition is also to be expected in the paradigm shift needed for the church today. Therefore, the embodying of the family interrelations of transformed/whole persons in these transformed/whole relationships is functionally significant only as it emerges in relational likeness to the whole of God’s relationships within the Godhead, which cannot be fragmented to tritheism or reduced to deism (cf. Col 2:9-10; 3:10-11). The intimate family interrelations within the whole of God between the Father, the Son and the Spirit can best (not totally) be defined as follows:
intimate relationship to the depth that, as Jesus disclosed, to see the Son is to see the Father, to know the Son is to know the Father (Jn 14:9; 17:26), and to receive the Spirit is to receive all their persons (Jn 16:15); and their intimate relationship functions together in the dynamic interaction of interdependence to the further depth that, as Jesus promised and the Father fulfilled, the Spirit’s person will be his relational replacement so that his followers would not be reduced to relational orphans (without family or even within a family), but by the Spirit’s relational presence and involvement, the Father and the Son will also be present and involved so that they all will be intimately involved together as family (Jn 14:18,23; 15:26; 16:13-15).
As Jesus also prayed in his formative family prayer (Jn 17:21-26) and then relationally extended into Paul, Paul further illuminated in his letters the primacy of this intimate interrelationship together in interdependence. Paul developed this theologically and functionally in pleroma ecclesiology for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function composed by the primacy of its persons and relationships in this distinguished functional significance uncommon only to God. In trinitarian theology, this relational dynamic of God is inadequately described as perichoresis, tending to be overly conceptual. Likewise, more church theology and practice today are conceived on a trinitarian basis, yet have not translated well in function to have the relational significance distinguished by the whole of God. This is a critical juncture for the global church to determine how its persons and relationships can be distinguished with the functional significance in likeness of this apparently elusive God.
God remains elusive in referential terms since the referentialization of the Word narrows our view of who, what and how God is, which then requires our speculation to speak for God or remain silent. In relational terms, God speaks for himself and communicates in the primacy of relationship, which then requires our relational involvement to receive God’s communication in relational words composed in relational language. Accordingly and compatibly, the interdependence within the whole and uncommon God can only be understood to the extent that God has disclosed his ontology and function. In Paul’s theological systemic framework and forest integrating his letters, his experiential truth centered on the relational function Jesus embodied and on the overlapping and extended relational function the Spirit enacted, both of which the Father initiated and ongoingly functions to oversee only in relational terms. For Paul, God was neither deistic or tritheistic, and never either pantheistic or panentheistic. Paul’s relational connection to each of them only appears to be in their specific functions, which seem to overlap and interact yet remain unique to each of them. But what each did was secondary for Paul to the experiential reality of connection in the primacy of relationship with each person. How this is perceived and interpreted have theological implications or repercussions depending on the interpretive framework of Paul’s readers—notably in defining our person and determining our relationships, that is, depending mainly on our theological anthropology.
Although contrary to referential terms, however, interacting functions in themselves do not account for the integral dynamic of the trinitarian Persons’ whole relationship together. This dynamic underlies each of their functions and integrates their uniqueness into the whole they constitute together in the innermost, the whole of God. Specifically, the Trinity is constituted in the primacy of their persons and relationship together, not by what they do in function; and it is crucial for our theological anthropology to be composed in likeness. The ontology and function of God’s whole relationship together lives also in interdependence. In this integral relational dynamic, any distinctions of their unique functions are rendered secondary to the primacy of relationship together; and such distinctions should not be used to define each Person or to determine their position in the Godhead. If God is stratified by such distinctions, the primacy of their persons and relationship is rendered secondary and God’s wholeness is fragmented into these parts. As vulnerably disclosed in relational terms, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are irreducibly defined and inseparably determined only by the primacy of their whole persons and whole relationship together; and this relational dynamic functions in various involvements in human contexts and with human contextualization to enact, embody and complete the whole of God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition—that is, to save us both from reductionism and to wholeness together. To highlight their distinctions in Scripture and the gospel, for example, by being overly christocentric, simply binitarian, skewed by the Spirit’s power, just role-specific or even gender-specific, is to diminish the whole of God’s ontology and to fragment the whole of God’s function. Moreover, to make primary their distinctions is simply to construct God in the human shaping of reduced ontology and function.
Paul understood their whole relationship together as the experiential truth of the whole of God relationally undifferentiated—that is, vulnerably equalized in intimate relationship together without distinctions. His integrated understanding (synesis) of this relationally whole God was the theological-functional basis for the church’s whole ontology and function to be embodied in likeness (Eph 4:4-6). Anything less or any substitute is neither in relational likeness to the whole of God, nor, therefore, embodies the functional significance of persons in the primacy of the intimate interrelationships together in interdependence, which is necessary to grow in the wholeness of the pleroma of Christ beyond merely the church body of Christ (4:12b-13).
As the relational function of God’s family love makes definitive, relationships together in the church are not only challenging but most definitely threatening. The primacy of persons in relationship together, either for God or the church, requires the vulnerable function of the heart opening to be involved for the intimate relational connection necessary for the interdependence of persons to be whole together. This vulnerable relational function of church interdependence is the new creation’s relational outcome and ongoing integral dynamic of transformed persons relationally involved in transformed relationships together. The church’s (local, regional, global) relational function of interdependence in likeness of the whole of God’s interdependence falls into a critical condition when it shifts from the primary function of transformed/whole relationships together.
Returning to the body metaphor, Paul warned against such a shift as he described this interdependence for the fragmented church at Corinth (1 Cor 12:12-31). This interdependence of the individual parts involved the connections together that resulted in covariation between the individual parts (“If one member suffers, all suffer…if one member is honored, all rejoice”). Moreover, if the parts are properly connected together, the implied result would be synergism in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its individual parts (“together with it” to be more than their sum, 12:25-26; cf. Eph 4:16). What Paul points to goes beyond simply having mutuality and what constitutes this covarying synergistic connection is the vulnerable relational involvement of love (12:31). Earlier Paul exposed their fragmentary relationships disconnected from each other by the primacy given to one’s level of knowledge (cf. wisdom in the primordial garden, Gen 3:6). He simply stated the experiential truth and reality: “Knowledge puffs up the individual, but love builds up each other” (1 Cor 8:1). In another letter, Paul provided the theological clarification needed to define the transformed relationships together as the basis for church interdependence (Rom 12:3-16). Both of these church scenarios struggled with the influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work affecting the primacy of persons and their relationships together. Would you say the contemporary church’s difficulty with being vulnerable in the relational involvement of love reflects the same struggle?
Reductionism, however, is often not as blatant as at the church in Corinth. As noted earlier, it is often more indirect and subtle, for example, involving assimilation into human contexts as existed perhaps in the Roman church (cf. Rom 12:2). The norms fragmenting persons and relationships that prevail in the surrounding context are in their function mainly how reductionism affects church relationships together in general and church interdependence in particular. For example, when the norm for defining persons is based on what roles they perform and/or resources they have, this fragmentation determines how relationships function, which affects a church’s interrelations together and, subsequently, affects church interdependence. Cultural models of family, social models of group relations, organizational and business models of interdependence, all influence a church’s interrelations together and its interdependence by these various shaping of relationships together substituting for the relational likeness of God. Furthermore, norms of individualism and individual freedom foster the independence (even in collectivist contexts) that strain and weaken church relationships together (cf. 1 Cor 8:9-11) and counter church interdependence (cf. 1 Cor 11:17-22; 14:1-4), thereby redefining, reshaping and reconstructing what it means to be created in the likeness of God.
Reductionism defines a church and explains church function by the deeds of its individuals and their resources. A church, therefore, becomes the sum of its individuals; church interdependence is thus no longer the relational outcome of relationships together with the Spirit but a byproduct at the mercy of individuals. The shift from top-down and inner-out to bottom-up and outer-in is subtle. In the Western church today, synergism has been replaced by individualism, and church interdependence has been renegotiated to church dependence on the individual’s terms—in contrast to Paul’s relational imperative for the church (Eph 4:2,15-16; cf. Col 3:10-15). Independence is the reductionist alternative to interdependence and, intentionally or unintentionally, serves as the functional substitute for it, with freedom as its identity marker. This dynamic also operates in non-Western churches in a less obvious variation of the human shaping of relationships together defining church ontology and church function. Family may have a greater priority in the global South, but its family relations likely do not have the functional significance of the primacy of persons and relationships; and they are rendered to a reduced ontology and function that is limited to fulfilling family duty and constrained by meeting family obligation.
This reduction of persons and relationships was the pivotal issue that Paul was fighting against, making epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, even in that collective-oriented sociocultural context (e.g. Gal 5:1,13; Rom 12:3; Phil 2:1-4; 1 Cor 4:7; 8:1,9). And the contemporary church is accountable to listen to the persons from the beginning and the existing condition of its relationships. Even modern neuroscience recognizes that interdependence is the natural state for human persons, and that independence is a political notion, not a scientific one.
Accordingly and urgently, the church (local, regional, global) needs to pay attention and take to heart what Jesus made paradigmatic: “The paradigm you use will be the church you get” (Mk 4:24).
The church does not emerge in functional significance unless it is led in this transition by the above paradigm shift—not by any paradigm, even if it seems good for the church—and it takes the lead in the changes necessary for it to be distinguished in the primacy of persons and relationships together as family only in likeness to God’s integral Persons in whole relationship together. By the necessity of his whole God’s family love,
Paul challenged the renegotiated ecclesiology of churches in reduced ontology and function, and also challenged the assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the definition of the person and its determination of relationships together in reductionist terms. Both of these conditions existed in churches apart from, in contrast to, or in conflict with the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole and uncommon God. Paul’s challenges to such reductionism are summarized in his response to make relationally specific the functional significance of the transformed and whole ecclesiology of God’s new creation family (Eph 4:14-25). His theological-functional clarity of this functional significance is directly connected to and emerges from his relational discourse on the theological dynamic of church ontology (4:7-13). Here again, we cannot revert back to a ‘body of Christ’ paradigm or this functional significance will elude the church.
For the ontological identity of the church to be of functional significance, it cannot be shaped or constructed by human terms from human contextualization, including innovations that appear good for the church (cf. the incompleteness of the popular church at Sardis, Rev 3:1-2). In Paul’s ecclesiology, the church in wholeness is the new creation family by the whole of God’s relational response of grace (“was given grace”) from above top-down—as Jesus previously made imperative with “born from above”—the dynamic of which (“descended…ascended”) Christ relationally embodied to make each one of us together to be God’s whole (“he might fill all things,” pleroo, make complete, 4:7-10; cf. 1:23). This relational process emerges in God’s ongoing family love, with the relational outcome of the church in wholeness embodying the pleroma of Christ. In God’s relational response of grace composed by the vulnerable relational involvement of trinitarian family love, Christ also gave the relational means to church leaders to be involved in likeness for the dynamic integral embodying of the church (4:11). Previously Paul defined this process also as part of the Spirit’s relational involvement to share different charisma from the whole of God (not a fragmented source) for the functional significance of the church body (1 Cor 12:4-11). For the church’s whole theology and practice, Paul illuminates this further to make definitive the functional significance of embodying the church with the primacy of persons and relationships in relational likeness to the whole and uncommon God. The church in general and church leaders in particular need to embrace this whole understanding from Paul.
When Paul highlights church leaders in their function, he does not highlight their roles and resources in the body of Christ, which have become the highlight in many church bodies. Rather Paul further illuminates the primacy of their whole person and the functional significance of their relational involvement for the church to be distinguished as the family of Christ—the pleroma of which is in likeness to the pleroma of God. The role of church leaders has been grossly overemphasized and their resources overestimated, while the significance of their person has been minimalized and their relational involvement undervalued. For Paul, church leaders—even in the global South who may lack formal theological education—are given the relational means for the purpose “to equip the saints” (katartismos from katartizo, to put into proper condition, to restore to former condition, make complete, 4:12). This process holds church leaders to be the most accountable since its condition directly points to the dynamic of transformed persons reconciled and relationally involved in transformed relationships together in relational likeness to God. And in these whole relational terms, what unfolds is integrated in the interdependence of the various church functions (“work of ministry”) necessary for the dynamic embodying (oikodome, 4:12) of the church’s whole ontology and function—the only process “to maturity” of “the pleroma of Christ” (4:13).
Paul made definitive the whole theology and practice required for the church and its leaders to be distinguished in the functional significance of their primacy of persons and relationships together. What Paul illuminated above is open neither to our negotiation nor to our selectivity. Therefore, this means unequivocally:
For church leaders to be of functional significance, their persons must be defined by the wholeness of the new creation in the qualitative image of God from inner out, not defined by their gifts, resources, or the roles and titles they have that reduce their persons to outer in; and for their leadership to be functionally significant as transformed persons, their function must be determined by the vulnerable relational involvement of love in transformed relationships together (both equalized and intimate) as God’s new creation family in the relational likeness of the whole of God—not determined by the titles and roles they perform (even with dedication, sacrifice or achievement) that make distinctions, intentionally or unintentionally creating distance and stratification in relationships together.
The latter practices by church leaders renegotiate ecclesiology from bottom-up based on a selective theological anthropology from outer in. This certainly challenges the theology and practice of all church leaders; yet, given the Spirit’s involvement, it also holds all persons in the church accountable for their person and relationships to be made whole. At the same time, those in theological education must account for their contribution to this condition. Both levels, for example, don’t need innovative leaders willing to take risks but rather vulnerable leaders whose persons are relationally involved for this primacy over any secondary—which perhaps involves the risk of such leaders losing their jobs in churches unwilling to change.
The cost of discipleship for church leaders is an ongoing issue that emerges either in wholeness or with reductionism. In Paul’s transformed ecclesiology of wholeness, church leaders in reduced ontology and function are not created new or living new in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, cannot katartismos (equip by restoring and making complete) others in the interdependence necessary to be of functional significance for embodying the church in relational likeness of the whole and uncommon God. Nor can they proclaim the experiential truth of the gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15). Only transformed leaders—whose persons are ongoingly being restored to the image and likeness of God (anakainoo, Col 3:10-11; cf. ananeoomai, Eph 4:23)—vulnerably involved in transformed relationships together with the Spirit can help make complete the saints. That is, and this is critical, katarismos emerges from integral interaction with anakainoo, which is nonnegotiable for church leaders. Only leaders functioning as whole persons in the primacy of relationship serve in whole relational terms to make complete the saints in the interdependence that is functionally significant for the church’s whole ontology and function. Summarized below is what Paul makes definitive and nonnegotiable to distinguish the church in wholeness:
Church leaders are whole persons with various resources who are relationally involved with church members (the uncommon, hagios) in the primacy of relationship, regardless of their resources, in order to help restore persons and relationships to their primacy to fulfill their relational responsibility (“work of ministry”) as family members, with the functional significance to dynamically embody (oikodome) the family of Christ (over the body of Christ) until all those relationally belonging to God’s family come to (katantao, reach, arrive) vulnerable involvement together in wholeness (henotes, unity), that is, whole in their vulnerable relational response of trust (“the faith”) in reciprocal relationship together and whole in specifically knowing (epignosis) the Son of God in intimate relationship, the relational outcome of which is persons in their primacy without distinctions (even beyond gender, aner) who are whole-ly complete (teleios, mature) in the qualitative depth (helikia, stature) of the pleroma (fullness, whole) embodied by Christ, therefore who together with the Spirit can embody the pleroma of Christ in functional significance of the relational likeness of the whole of God (4:12-13).
Without church leadership in the functional significance of the primacy of their persons and relationships, the church is constrained, if not prevented, to emerge, grow and mature distinguished in the primary functional significance of the persons and relationships belonging to God’s family.
We must not referentialize the experiential truth and reality of Paul’s theology and practice. Paul is not outlining an ecclesial function of church growth models, missional models or any other ministry techniques of serving for the quantitative expansion of gatherings shaped or constructed by human terms. Following and expanding on Jesus’ lead that “the paradigm you use will be the church you get,” Paul makes conclusive the theological paradigm integral for the whole relational function embodying the church’s ontology and function of who the church is and whose the church is as God’s new creation family in his qualitative image and relational likeness. This paradigm composes only in whole relational terms the theological dynamic of church ontology, whose function is entirely relational and whose whole ontology and function distinguishes the functional significance of transformed persons relationally involved by God’s family love in transformed relationships together in interdependence. This integral relational paradigm distinguishing the church in functional significance is nonnegotiable, especially for its leaders no matter how innovative a variation may be or how good it may seem for the church.
Regardless of the experiential truth of the family of Christ composed in Paul’s transformed and whole ecclesiology, reductionism is an ongoing reality that raises subtle alternatives—the subtlety of which leads churches in ontological simulation of who and whose they are, and in epistemological illusion of the function that distinguishes the church in the significance of God’s new creation family.
The intersection of the trajectory of the old and the path of the new has been ongoing in church history. The theology and practice of the church that have emerged at this intersection is less from a collision and more from a convergence in some hybrid. Hybrid alternatives to the family of Christ have prevailed in the body of Christ and continue to emerge in the contemporary church. And the reality of reductionism emerges in the simple fact that ‘the old’ also subtly changes with the times and its surrounding context, thereby making such alternatives more difficult to detect and easier to ignore as the status quo of the old (as demonstrated by Nicodemus). Paul warned the church family about this fragmenting influence and challenged us “to be wise about what is good [i.e. distinguishing ‘good with wholeness’ from ‘good without wholeness’] and not subtly intermixing what is evil [i.e. sin without reductionism]” (Rom 16:19). Yet, ‘the new guise of the old’ is a pervasive reality in the global church. In the meantime, persons and relationships wait for the collision imperative for church theology and practice to emerge transformed and whole.
Any alternatives in church practice always involve renegotiating church theology or the significance of its theology, whether church practice is separated from church theology or not. As Nicodemus learned unexpectedly, churches cannot assume that their theological tradition unfolds in practice that’s good for the church—that they are “wise about what is good.” Nor can churches assume that their practice doesn’t renegotiate their theology. These assumptions are part of the subtlety of reductionism promoting alternatives that change with the times and the surrounding context.
A renegotiated ecclesiology could easily be considered a pragmatic alternative to Paul’s complete ecclesiology by some of his readers, even a necessary reality. This would be understandable given the paradigm shift and related changes required in Paul’s theology and practice for the church. The intersection of the old and the new will always be a tense convergence, with a collision waiting to happen. Likewise, there is simply no way to deny, minimalize or get around the vulnerability involved in giving primacy to persons and relationships. With its subtle appeal, social media (amplified exponentially by smartphones) conveniently becomes the prevailing alternative to being vulnerable in the global North and a pervading alternative increasing in the global South, which we need to stop assuming is a good alternative for both persons and relationships. Paul clearly understood that only the vulnerable relational involvement of “love builds up” (1 Cor 8:1) persons and relationships in their primacy for the church; and he certainly encountered ongoing alternatives to this vulnerable relational involvement, and confronted in family love their fragmenting influence and consequence on persons and relationships in the church. Thus, it is also untenable that for some of Paul’s readers his transformed and whole ecclesiology may be perceived or considered as “just theological,” perhaps merely an ideal not attainable in practice (just as love is often perceived. Yet, theology and practice were never separated by Paul—for example, as is common in the academy—nor could they be incongruent.
Many of his readers may even argue that some of Paul’s prescriptions for the church (e.g. about women and slaves) appear to be pragmatic ecclesiology, thus that he either contradicted his theology or suspended its ideal. While there seems to be ambiguity in some of his church prescriptions (e.g. for women and those in a slave-caste), key to understanding the whole of Paul and the whole in his ecclesiology is the perception of what context Paul is speaking from, not the context he is speaking in and to. Renegotiated or pragmatic ecclesiology is based on human contextualization and shaped by human terms. Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology emerges from God’s trinitarian relational context of family and process of family love, and is defined and determined by God’s terms through reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit—whole relational terms irreducible by the nature of the whole of God and nonnegotiable by the nature of the uncommon God down to referential terms reduced and fragmentary. In his prescriptions for the church, Paul is speaking of family and in family love from God’s relational context and process. Therefore, Paul’s prescriptions need to be seen in the strategic interest and concern of pleroma ecclesiology—the pleroma of God embodying the pleroma of Christ—and must not be confused with or reduced to renegotiated ecclesiology for pragmatics. His prescriptions involve a tactical shift advocated by Paul that points to the strategic concerns of God’s relational whole on just God’s whole relational terms to fulfill and complete God’s thematic relational response to the human condition (to be discussed in coming chaps.). In this relational process, Paul engages the whole gospel composed by complete Christology for the relational outcome of God’s church family to emerge in wholeness. This relational outcome is the full soteriology of what Christ saves us to, ‘already’.
It is unequivocal in Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology that the church in relational likeness of the whole of God is irreplaceable for the functional significance of its ontology and function. For the church’s ontology and function to be whole as God’s new creation family, it must (dei by nature, not opheilo by obligation) be the functional significance of both transformed relationships reconciled equally together and intimate interrelations integrated together in interdependence; and both of these in their primacy are functionally significant only in the vulnerable relational involvement of God’s family love. Church whole relationships together are reconciled together by Christ with the Spirit, thus are by their nature irreducible; and the integrated relational outcome of church interdependence in relational likeness to the whole of God is nonnegotiable. Interdependent is how God created his new creation family, which is how God created the whole human family in relationship together (cf. Gen 2:18) and integrated all of creation (cf. Col 1:20; Rom 8:19-21). Just as modern neuroscience affirms this interdependence and acknowledges the influence of reductionism to counter it, the whole ontology and function of the church embodies the functional significance of this new creation family to fulfill the inherent human relational need and to solve the human problem—which neuroscience can merely identify but without having good news for its fulfillment and resolution. Yet, the church in renegotiated ecclesiology is also without both the functional significance of the good news of what persons and relationships are and its relational significance of what persons and relationships can be saved to.
Only in the primacy of the persons and relationships belonging to the church does the church (local, regional, global) emerge distinguished in the functional significance of wholeness as the family of Christ. This distinguished outcome, however, can only emerge from the collision of the church’s old trajectory with the new relational path—therefore, emerging transformed and whole in church ontology and functions, theology and practice, whereby the global church family unfolds on this whole relational basis.
 In his study of the term mathetes (disciple), Michael J. Wilkins makes a case for calling Matthew’s Gospel a manual on discipleship in Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 126-172.
 N.T. Wright addresses the current split between the kingdom and the cross in both theology and function in “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” in Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 137-47.
 I discuss Paul’s completeness in a previous study, The Whole of Paul and the Whole in His Theology: Theological Interpretation in Relational Epistemic Process (Paul Study, 2010). Online at http://www.4X12.org.
 For example, see John D. Zizioulos, Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985); Catherine Mowry LaCugna, God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991); Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998).
 John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 248.
©2016 T. Dave Matsuo