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 6 The Church Unfolds with the Palpable Word
“Here is your son…here is your mother.’
Speaking about the kingdom of God into the church…
“This is what you have heard from me….”
With all that is facing the church in a globalizing world, we cannot talk about the church unfolding today unless it has emerged distinguished in the primacy of who the church is and whose it is, thus distinguished beyond any common identity. If the complete embodied Word does not embody the contemporary church body of Christ, then the church body does not embody and therefore cannot unfold as the wholeness (pleroma) of Christ—whether within itself or in the world—which Paul made integral for the church (Eph 1:22-23).
The paradigm shift from ‘the body of Christ’ to ‘the family of Christ’ remains pivotal for the church (local, regional, global). When Jesus clearly communicated to his disciples in relational terms “I will not leave you orphaned,” he pointed to two relational processes integral for the experiential reality of his church to unfold: (1) foremost is the primacy of his family, and (2) utmost is the ongoing reciprocal relational involvement with the palpable Word. These foremost and utmost relational processes are inseparable for Jesus and they interact by necessity for the church to unfold in the relational outcome of wholeness.
Soon after Jesus’ defining communication to his disciples in relational terms, these two relational processes became the experiential truth that the embodied Word constituted for the experiential reality of his church as the family of Christ in likeness of the whole and uncommon God. First, when the embodied Word was completing his relational work of what he saved us to, he communicated in family love from the cross directly to his mother and beloved disciple that what unfolds from here is now ‘your family in the primacy of relationship together’—that is, the church as the uncommon family of Christ (cf. Mt 12:48-50). Certainly, this must have involved a paradigm shift for Mary and John, because they didn’t receive Jesus’ communication in family love merely as referential language but only in the significance of relational terms. Therefore, in the primacy of relationship “from that hour his brother John took her into his own care in the primacy of Christ’s family”—not just “his own house” (idios, Jn 19:27). This uncommon relational process conjointly (1) countered the common practices for persons and relationships and the trajectory of the old (including constrained in ‘the body of Christ’), and (2) projected the church on the uncommon relational path embodied by the complete Word, whole and uncommon—without referentialization or selectivity of the Word. This was the pivotal moment that distinguished the experiential reality of the family of Christ from commonization, clearly separating nothing less and no substitutes from anything less and any substitutes in the church.
What we are saved to unfolds further as the whole Word transitioned from embodied to palpable significance in order both to not leave us orphaned—even as relational orphans within a church body—and for the church to unfold in the wholeness of who it is and completeness of whose it is. This relational outcome is dependent on the essential integration of the embodied Word with the palpable Word. Just before Jesus ascended, he extended the face of the whole embodied Word completely into the palpable Word for this integral relational purpose, process and outcome. In spite of the Word’s bodily absence, the face of the Word would continue to be palpable by the deeper presence and involvement of the whole of the Word composed integrally with the Spirit. This would soon become the face of the whole palpable Word. To those present in the gathered body (ekklesia)—called out of the common to be uncommon and then to unfold as the uncommon family of Christ in the common context (as Jesus prayed for his family, Jn 17:11-23)—the embodied Word fulfilled his earlier relational words (Jn 14:15-27; 15:26; 16:7-15) to send his relational replacement, the person of the Spirit, to constitute the continued vulnerable presence and intimate involvement now distinguished as the palpable Word (Acts 1:4-5). What the embodied Word earlier communicated in relational terms, “I have much more to communicate to you, more than you can now bear” (Jn 16:12, NIV), the palpable Word will further communicate in relational terms in the utmost relational process of reciprocal relationship together.
As the church is in ongoing relational involvement with the face of the whole palpable Word, the church unfolds with the palpable Word in the wholeness (“peace”) Jesus promised in likeness of Christ’s wholeness—that is, the uncommon ‘peace as wholeness’ rather than the common ‘peace without conflict’ (Jn 14:27; 16:33, cf. Nu 6:26). This is the wholeness that Paul later made the relational imperative as the church’s only determinant (Col 3:15) and made conclusive its relational outcome as the family of Christ (Eph 2:14,17-18; Phil 4:7). Yet, wholeness has not been the prevailing condition of the church that has unfolded to the present. This likely is the result of disconnecting the Spirit from the palpable Word and thus reducing the Spirit’s person as the relational replacement for Jesus’ person (cf. 2 Cor 3:17-18; Eph 2:22); for example, a reduction takes place when we focus only on the Spirit’s power or as a force, and disconnection happens whenever we ignore the Spirit’s person or keep relational distance. This reduction and disconnection leave the church without the utmost relational process necessary for reciprocal relational involvement with the palpable Word, so that the church unfolds in the wholeness of Christ.
The palpable Word emerges with the Spirit, and the Spirit emerged as the face of the palpable Word. The Spirit emerged clearly (not initially) at Pentecost, yet who emerged has not been distinguished from what emerged—which correlates to our previous discussion of who came and what has come. More often than not, Pentecost is seen as an event rather than as the convergence (and perhaps collision) of persons. What is commonly perceived as emerging from this event was the prominence of the Spirit’s power, which arguably continues to manifest in the church. The significance of the Spirit, however, is not distinguished (pala) by power and its related accomplishments, just as the other trinitarian persons are not distinguished (not to be confused with having distinction) by what they do or the role they have. The significance of the Spirit is distinguished only by the primacy of both the Spirit’s person and the relationship together that integrally compose the face of the palpable Word’s ongoing vulnerable presence and intimate involvement face to face. When the Spirit as person has been neglected or ignored—which is a pervasive practice by Christians that prevails among churches, even Pentecostals and charismatics focused on only the Spirit’s power—the relational connection with the face of the whole palpable Word is unavailable for the church to unfold in the wholeness of Christ.
This has been problematic, for example, for evangelicals who are overly christocentric and neglect the primacy of the Spirit’s person, yet which can also result from a referential trinitarian theology without the primacy of their persons and relationship together. Though their churches are expanding in the global South, the problem continues also for Pentecostals and charismatics who focus on the Spirit’s power at the expense of the Spirit’s person and the Trinity in the primacy of their relationship together, which has relational consequences in spite of any ‘signs and wonders’ of the Spirit. This experiential reality, however, does not define the complete experiential truth of the Spirit, who is inseparable from the face of the Truth embodied, who is indistinguishable from the Father. Underlying these issues and determining the shape of God for Christians and churches is a reduced theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function of who came and what has come, which limit and constrain the persons and relationships belonging to the family of Christ from unfolding in the wholeness that the face of the whole embodied Word composed and the face of the whole palpable Word unfolds into completeness.
The early stages of the church unfolding with the palpable Word were recorded in the book of Acts by Luke, whose Gospel was written with the concern that the gospel be for all nations. This concern also involved the church’s composition and extended into Acts to highlight some major ups and downs experienced by the church in this defining relational process. What unfolds is the reciprocal relational involvement necessary to compose with the palpable Word the integral relational context and process of the kingdom into church into family that the embodied Word saved them to, and that Paul made definitive in the embodied Word’s wholeness and in likeness of the palpable Word (Acts 28:28-31).
What unfolded from Pentecost was pivotal for the church and continues to be so today. When Jesus told his gathered disciples that they would soon “be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5), he was soon to complete the transformation process that he initially revealed to Nicodemus: to be born new from the dying of the old—which Paul later clarified theologically (Rom 6:3-4; 8:6-11). The Spirit is the key to the church’s baptism in this relational process of redemptive change from the trajectory of the old to the relational path of the new; and this baptism should not be confused with unique situations identified as ‘the baptism of the Spirit’. If we reduce the church’s baptism by the Spirit to narrowed-down circumstances, resources and gifts unique to the so-called anointed, we reduce the person of the Spirit who came and what has come for the church to unfold in the wholeness of Christ. The vital issue for the church to understand is the transition of the embodied Word extended whole-ly into the palpable Word.
What we witness at Pentecost is not a phenomenon of language and tongues, which for some is merely an epiphenomenon that is not directly relationally connected to the church. The unique multiplicity of languages expressed by the disciples was only secondary to the face of the whole palpable Word emerging from their innermost, as Jesus earlier forecasted (Jn 7:38-39). With the face of the Spirit the disciples were able to communicate face to face with others (not just speak in their own language) in the primacy of relational terms for relationship together (not in referential terms to transmit information). This relational process and its relational outcome established the global church of all nations (Luke’s concern) that unfolds with ongoing reciprocal relationship with the face of the palpable Word, whose vulnerable presence and intimate involvement continue to be the experiential truth and reality by the person of the Spirit. Peter verified the face of the Spirit’s presence and involvement for the global church as fulfillment of some of Joel’s words (Joel 2:28) and David’s anticipation: “you will make me full of gladness with your presence” (paneh, face, the front of someone, Ps 16:11, Acts 2:28), that is, the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the face of the whole embodied Word transitioned into the face of the whole palpable Word by the Spirit (Acts 2:32-33).
As the global church for all nations unfolded with the Spirit, it emerged locally in a distinct fellowship (koinonia) over any other organization structure and membership process. How the local church is described can be perceived as a communal structure (or an intentional community) with a common purse (Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-35), which most would say is no longer applicable for the church today. While this form is not precluded for the local church, it should not be confused with what unfolded in this early church. Koinonia in the context with the Spirit needs to be distinguished from the common, namely in the practice of persons and relationships. This may get confusing since the root for koinonia is koinos (common, belonging to several, or of which several are partakers). Koinonia, however, is not a static description of the local church that can describe any common gathering or association, which many local churches fall into. Koinonia is the dynamic relational process of the church taken from koinoneo, which defines those who participate, who are vulnerable partakers of and thus who intimately share in what the church has in common together in Christ with the Spirit—not what the common church is or has commonly that is shaped by its surrounding context. This uncommon koinonia is also discussed further in the next chapter.
What the church has in common together ‘in Christ’ with the Spirit is the primacy of persons and relationships together in the wholeness of the embodied and palpable Word’s likeness; only this composes the koinonia of those belonging to the uncommon family of God. Therefore, the local church partakes of and shares in the vulnerable and intimate participation of its persons and relationships whole-ly in their primacy together as the family of Christ, not just the body of Christ. All else that the local church participates in is secondary, at best, to this primacy and must be integrated, if not redeemed, to what’s primary and thus good (always with wholeness) for the church.
Neither secondary participation nor selective participation constitutes the relational process of koinonia primary for the church and church membership. This may appear as an ideal or unrealistic expectation—which would eliminate the communal church with a common purse as an option—that is not a priority for the church, especially when a local church’s survival is the main consideration. After all, how many persons would join such a fellowship? Yet, we must not minimize or dismiss the relational consequence of Ananias and Sapphira’s participation and its relational significance for the church to unfold in wholeness or to merely survive reduced and fragmented (Acts 5:1-11). The regional and global church took what happened seriously, without considering participation an ideal or unrealistic expectation to be accountable for, as “great fear seized the whole church and all who heard of these things.” Does this hold the church accountable today for what fills its membership, and hold members accountable for their participation? The integrity of koinonia is at stake here, and the contemporary church cannot avoid what composes the primacy of wholeness.
The early regional church had to deal with this issue, when distinction-making in church practice by Hebrew members in the treatment of Hellenist members was exposed to reveal an inequity in the general fellowship. Hellenist “widows were being neglected in the daily distribution of food” (Acts 6:1). Their need was important yet the situation was secondary to the primacy of persons and relationships and the relational consequence this treatment had on the integrity of koinonia as God’s family. The apostles responded in relational terms to this primacy, not by making the situation primary but integrating the secondary into the primacy of all their persons and relationships together; and the priority of their relational response “pleased the whole koinonia community” (6:2-5).
In spite of the church’s corrective relational action, what this relational consequence also exposed was the local-regional church’s provincialism (perhaps inadvertently narrow in focus) that centered on the surrounding context of Jerusalem, and thus limited and/or constrained the nature of the global church for all nations (the major concern of Luke, cf. 6:7). The word of God spreading in and around Jerusalem, however, could not constrain the palpable Word, whose presence and involvement in ongoing reciprocal relationship together—notably with Stephen (6:5,10; 7:55) and with Philip (8:39)—used Stephen’s martyrdom and subsequent great persecution against the church to force them out of their provincialism and into the contexts of all nations. This was a critical relational process in order for the global church to unfold transformed in wholeness, the wholeness of Christ. Without the presence of the palpable Word and reciprocal involvement with the person of the Spirit face to face, the church does not unfold in wholeness—regardless of the church’s membership, resources, situation and circumstances, even in spite of its related corrective action (as witnessed above). This irreplaceable relational process unfolds for the church in ongoing involvement in reciprocating contextualization (noted previously) with the palpable Word in order to address the surrounding contexts (as in the ek-eis relational dynamic), and to be distinguished whole and have the significance of wholeness by ongoing involvement in triangulation (e.g. connecting a situation with connection between the church and the palpable Word, as in the process of navigation) with the palpable Word, to be guided in those specific situations and circumstances. Without this relational involvement with the palpable Word, the church is faced with contexts, situations and circumstances in which it isn’t, or doesn’t know how to be, distinguished and significant. This lack of involvement leaves the church susceptible to, if not already subject to, the surrounding influences, which then shape the church’s identity and function according to those common terms.
While the early church was forced out of its provincialism, this did not automatically result in the complete transformation of their theology and practice. Ups and downs continued to qualify the unfolding of the global church, and this required intrusive relational action by the whole palpable Word (both Jesus along with the Spirit) to intervene for the wholeness of the church family for all persons, peoples and nations. Paul became the main focus of their intrusive relational work (Acts 9:1-31), followed by the further pursuit of Peter’s theology and practice (10:9-11:18). The palpable Word’s relational work with Paul and Peter was the key for the global church to make the necessary pivotal shift to be composed by the primacy of all persons in equalized relationships together without distinctions of ‘better or less’. This was indispensable and thus nonnegotiable, so that God’s family would indeed be for all nations (15:1-35). The presence and involvement of the palpable Word was indeed available to all persons for relationship together, because the experiential truth and relational reality became definitive to the church that “God has made no distinctions between persons, peoples and nations” (15:9). The relational outcome was unequivocal for distinguishing the church in the wholeness of God’s uncommon family.
This initial outcome proved pivotal for the global church’s theology but its practice still had ups and downs. Trajectories of the old kept colliding with the relational path of the new for the redemptive changes required for the church to unfold transformed in wholeness—just as Nicodemus learned from the embodied Word. Notably colliding with the new was Peter’s old practice that continued to make distinctions between Jews and Gentiles, with the relational consequence of discrimination against the latter in spite of his theology corrected by the palpable Word. This was the disparity for which Paul confronted Peter in his hypokrisis (Gal 2:11-14). Paul also made it the relational imperative that church theology and practice be integrated integrally for the church’s whole ontology and function (Col 3:15-16)—an integration that the academy has increasingly lacked. And if this integral interaction is diminished, even for practical reasons—including for self-determination and scholarship—the church is renegotiated by human terms and becomes determined by human shaping, mainly influenced by the surrounding context and what commonly prevails (e.g. 1 Cor 4:6-7).
The palpable Word, therefore, continued to pursue the churches composing the global church, clarifying and correcting both their theology and practice in order for them to be whole in church ontology and function. The face of Jesus in post-ascension with the Spirit composed the palpable Word’s communication for the church unfolding in history, which the contemporary church cannot deny as communicated in relational terms directly to us to “hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2-3). What is evident throughout the palpable Word’s vulnerable and intimate involvement is the intersection of trajectories of the old by the relational path of the new, and their necessary collision for the church to be transformed in wholeness—not merely re-formed in what is perceived commonly as good for the church, which likely includes most innovations for an emerging church. The church (local, regional, global) unfolds transformed in wholeness only through ongoing relational involvement with the palpable Word—involved together ongoingly in reciprocating contextualization with the surrounding global context, and in triangulation with the surrounding situations and circumstances, along with ongoing involvement in the primacy of relationship with each other. And anything less and any substitutes for and from the church unfold neither whole nor distinguished as God’s uncommon church family.
This is the challenge facing the church today, and likely confronting the church “knocking on its door,” which the face of the whole palpable Word’s vulnerable involvement ongoingly presents in irreplaceable, irreducible and nonnegotiable reciprocal relationship together face to face.
When the church is willing and ready to meet the challenge facing us today, and open the relational door, we must come face to face first with the glory of God’s presence and involvement. ‘Must’ emerges from dei to unfold by the nature of God and how God participates in relationship, and what is necessary for us by this nature that makes it irreducible and nonnegotiable. Thus, this ‘must’ does not emerge from opheilo to unfold as an obligation that one is obliged to fulfill as one’s duty or even morally. Next, the church must come face to face with each other in the church, with the relational involvement of family love just as experienced face to face with God’s presence and involvement. On the basis of this face-to-face relational involvement and its relational outcome, the church then shares itself face to face with the world in the uncommon relational process of God’s whole and uncommon family.
The face (paneh) of God’s presence and involvement unfolded from God’s definitive blessing for God’s whole family (Nu 6:24-26). This paneh was the presence of God that Peter illuminated at Pentecost as the palpable Word. Before the palpable Word unfolded, the embodied Word unfolded “in the face of Christ,” who constituted “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God,” and thereby “who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God” (2 Cor 4:4,6). Who came and what has come become merely the transmission of information when Paul’s words are rendered in referential terms. In the relational terms composing Paul’s words, however, who and what unfold are distinguished beyond the glory commonly attributed to God and Christ.
Glory (kabod in OT, doxa in NT) involves the honor, majesty, splendor and prestige that we usually assume as attributes of God. With these attributes, God’s glory becomes a static condition that is too vague when we want to know who, what and how God is. For Judaism in the OT, the image of God’s glory is also mainly characterized as strength and power (e.g. Ex 15:6,11; 16:6-8; Ps 24:6-8; 29:1-4; 59:9,17). This may help us know what God does or can do but insufficient to know who, what and how God is. What this points to goes beyond having some information about God’s glory to having direct connection with the glory of who, what and how God is—that is, the relational connection with God face to face that emerged between God and Moses (Num 12:6-8) and unfolded from God’s definitive blessing.
The face of the embodied Word deepens this image and glory of God to reveal to us whole-ly what is integral to God’s glory: (1) the qualitative being of God signifying the very heart of God, (2) the intimate relational nature of the whole of God, and (3) the vulnerable presence of the whole and holy God, who vulnerably participates in relationship both by his intimate relational nature and with his whole heart. That is, beyond merely attributes and what God does, this distinguished relational dynamic of God’s glory unfolded in the vulnerable presence of the innermost of God’s heart, who was intimately involved by the face of Christ in whole relational terms for the new face-to-face relationship together in wholeness—the new relationship (siym with shalom) promised in God’s definitive blessing and now fulfilled with the face of Christ. The relational significance of face, therefore, is integral to God’s glory and for knowing the glory of who, what and how God is, just as Paul made unequivocally definitive of the face of Christ.
The unmistakable face of Christ is our relational connection with the glory of who, what and how God is, which involves the righteousness of the whole and uncommon God. Yet, this relational connection by the nature of God’s glory must be in the integral relational process (1) with the innermost of our whole person signified by our heart for our righteousness to be compatible, (2) only in reciprocal relationship together face to face, heart to heart, and thus (3) vulnerably involved ongoingly. For this relational process to be whole in relationship together with the vulnerable face of God, Jesus tore open the temple curtain and removed the veil between us—signifying the limits and constraints existing in the relationship—in order to be free from the old and vulnerable in the new for the ongoing intimate relational involvement face to face. Moses’ face-to-face connection with God was transient, but now with the face of Christ and by the face of the palpable Word this new face-to-face relationship together in wholeness—promised by the face of God (enacted with siym and shalom, Num 4:26)—has become the experiential truth for us to have as our experiential reality (2 Cor 3:12-18; cf. Heb 10:19-22).
For the Word to be palpable today, it must be composed beyond the referentialization of the Word and be composed in relational terms by the Word’s presence and involvement. For the palpable Word to be present and involved today, the Word must intrude with face, the face distinguishing the trinitarian persons composing the palpable Word. The reality of this relational process cannot be avoided if we want to experience God’s presence and involvement. Yet, the palpable Word remains elusive for us when we pursue the power of the Spirit instead of the face of the Spirit; and the face of the palpable Word is ambiguous when we focus on spiritual gifts rather than on the primacy of the person of the Spirit in reciprocal relationship together.
The only experiential truth the church can claim is as revealed:
The face of the whole palpable Word is vulnerably present and intimately involved for the church to be ongoingly connected in whole relational terms with the glory of who, what and how God is, in order for the church to be relationally involved ongoingly in reciprocal relationship together face to face, so that the church will unfold distinguished whole-ly as God’s uncommon family in the primacy of persons without distinctions in relationships together face to face—the new face-to-face relationship together in wholeness without the veil of relational distance.
Face to face with God may not be an appealing process to those in sociocultural contexts where this kind of relationship is not the norm, especially as the digital age pervades the globalizing world to compound the loss of face-to-face relational connection. Yet, traditional spirituality is not necessarily the alternative for Christians and churches to turn to in order to be involved with God face to face. In fact, many spiritual disciplines focus us more on secondary matters like method, techniques, what to do, and inadvertently cast a fog on the primacy of face-to-face relationship with God. The relational consequence of such engagement in spite of good intentions is to reinforce or even sustain relational distance, albeit with the illusion and simulation of something deeper taking place.
Moreover, and this is equally important, in this integral relational process of face-to-face relationship, the church cannot make relational connection with the face of the palpable Word by its theology, however correct it is. Nor can the church be relationally involved with the face of the palpable Word through its ministry or organizational practice. The presence and involvement with the face of the palpable Word can only be connected and involved with directly by the face of our persons in compatible presence and involvement, who are congruent face to face. And this relational compatibility and congruence in relational terms must start with church leaders for this relational practice to permeate the church. The early church leaders followed the embodied Word with commitment and gave priority to the word of God with dedication (Acts 6:2-4), yet they missed or ignored Jesus’ earlier teaching and interactions about the insignificance of food and human distinctions (e.g. Mt 15:1-20). This gap in the Jesus tradition of the apostles was demonstrated by Peter’s interpretive framework and lens on purity and at the church summit in Jerusalem, whose leadership had relational consequences in the church (as just discussed). What this reflects is that their engagement was with a referentialized Word and perhaps with their selectivity of the Word, both of which would be incompatible with the face of the palpable Word’s presence and involvement as well as incongruent with face-to-face reciprocal relationship together. Church leaders today must account for their engagement of the Word as well as the Word they engage.
The face of the palpable Word is unmistakable, and the face of the Father’s ongoing vulnerable presence and intimate involvement is irreplaceable for the church to function with nothing less than face-to-face relationship together as family. The experiential truth of “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” involves the experiential reality that God is elusive in practice (if not in theology) for those in the church until connected directly in face-to-face relationship. If and when the church (notably starting with its leadership) makes itself vulnerable to the Word beyond its referentialization to the face of the palpable Word, the church will come face to face with the whole Word and unfold in the relational outcome distinguished by who came and what has come, and therefore distinguished as God’s whole and uncommon family—nothing less and no substitutes, without the shaping influence of reductionism.
On the basis of the above face-to-face relational outcome, now the church must face—again, by the nature of God’s relational terms and not out of obligation and duty—a likely more difficult involvement, face to face with each other in God’s family.
When Mary came face to face with Jesus to sit at his feet to follow him, she breached sociocultural barriers that also put her directly face to face with the other disciples and indirectly with her sister Martha; there is no indication how the disciples acted with Mary but Martha objected based on the cultural norm (Lk 10:38-42). Later, when Mary responded face to face with the embodied Word for an intimate connection, her face intruded on the faces of the other disciples, whose faces kept their relational distance as they contested such involvement with the substitute of ministry (Mt 26:1-13)—which also exposed their indirect connection with Jesus through their serving, contrary to the primacy of relationship that Jesus made imperative for discipleship (Jn 12:26). When the Twelve were faced with inequity in the church, they created a necessary division of labor for the body of Christ to meet its needs, but there is no indication from these leaders of the face-to-face relational involvement with those persons in the primacy of relationship together as the family of Christ (Acts 6:1-7). When these church leaders were faced with the relational consequence of making distinctions in the church, they had to come face to face with the reality of all persons and relationships composing the church in its primacy (Acts 10:23-48; 15:1-35).
What emerges from these examples, which are not exhaustive, are both the relational challenge and difficulty that Christians have with face-to-face connection and involvement with each other in God’s family. Church history and the contemporary church certainly have an exhausting list of their own examples of this relational challenge and difficulty; and this primary problem with face-to-face relationships keeps unfolding along the spectrum of our human condition in the church and with a diversity of simulations shaped by our particular sociocultural lens.
When Paul addressed the fragmentation in the body of Christ in Corinth, the primary issue he confronted was their face-to-face relationships and the primacy of being involved with each other face to face by family love. Paul vulnerably engaged them face to face with his whole person from inner out (1 Cor 2:1-5) in the involvement of family love (4:14-15,21, cf. 8:1), and the face of the person who emerged from Paul reflected his face-to-face involvement with the face of the palpable Word (2:9-13). In Paul’s theology and practice, therefore, the primacy of persons and relationships that distinguishes the church as God’s whole family unfolds only in face-to-face relational involvement with each other together—without the veiled face of relational distance (2 Cor 3:16-18) and without the relational barriers of distinctions preventing face-to-face connection (Eph 2:14-18). For Paul, eliminating these limits and constraints makes persons vulnerable for the intimate involvement necessary to be whole together and to live whole in face-to-face relationship together in likeness of the face of the whole palpable Word (Eph 2:19-22; 3:19; 4:12-16, 23-24).
What keeps emerges to make evident for the primacy of persons and relationships in the church is the need for the primacy of the face of each person and their face-to-face relationships with each other. This primacy of relational involvement is the family love that composes the irreplaceable infrastructure of the church. God’s family love is no ideal for the church but the experiential truth and reality that constituted the church by the loving relational involvement of the face of the embodied Word, further extended into the face of the palpable Word. The primary enactment of God’s agape-love is not what God does with sacrifice. That is only an indirect expression of love and thus always secondary (though not unimportant) to the primacy of direct relational involvement. Moreover, indirect love is a common substitute for the direct involvement and experience of love. For God, there is no experiential truth and reality of love without the face of the one who loves, nor is there without the face-to-face connection by the one who is loved. In other words, God loves only with the face of God and we experience God’s love directly only in face-to-face connection together.
The reality facing the church is that without face there is no face-to-face communication of love; at best, there is only the referential term of love that merely transmits the information about God’s love for us. While it is certainly nice to be informed of God’s or others’ love for us, that is an inadequate substitute for experiencing the love directly. This direct involvement of love is at the heart of what is primary for persons in their relationships. ‘Face with face to face’ is the experiential truth and reality of God’s love and also of our love both for God and for others (including family and friends). The global church cannot appeal to its cultural diversity to compose and justify its practice of persons and relationships, and thereby expect to be distinguished and have significance as God’s whole and uncommon family unfolding in God’s family love.
When Jesus pointed to his embodied departure, he gave all his disciples the relational imperative that will define who they are, and thereby whose they are: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you share love for one another” (Jn 13:34-35). Merely to “have love for one another” does not necessarily involve the relational action that Jesus makes imperative. This defining relational imperative was communicated by Jesus in the subjunctive mood because the love to be enacted by his disciples had two qualifying contingencies:
His disciples are to love on the relational
(not referential) basis “just as I have loved you,” not similar to or
like but “exactly as I have loved you.” Jesus was not pointing to his
example for his disciples to emulate, as is the common practice; rather
Jesus highlighted how “I, the face of my person, have been vulnerably
and intimately involved in face-to-face relationship with you.” Besides
whatever else Jesus did, including his forthcoming sacrifice on the
cross, the face of his relational involvement was the primacy of love
that is the only relational basis for his disciples to love—even over
sacrifice, just as Jesus shared his love directly with others while
on the cross. The contingency for his disciples is that in order for
his love to be an experiential reality (not referential information) for
them, they must by nature have face-to-face relational connection
together with him; and having his love indirectly does not fulfill this
2. Only as the first contingency is met ongoingly—the relational experience of the face of the palpable Word’s love is ongoing—can his disciples expect to “love one another.” Yet, the experience of “I have loved you” is always qualified by how Jesus was relationally involved with them: the vulnerable face of his person intimately involved face to face. On the relational basis of ‘face with face to face’, all of Jesus’ disciples are to love one another. This relational process not only qualifies agape-love but establishes the contingency for how his disciples’ agape-love is relationally involved with one another: the vulnerable face of our person intimately involved face to face.
When these two contingencies are met ongoingly, the experiential truth and reality of God’s family love flows in the primacy of persons and relationships of the church. Accordingly, the face of these persons involved in face-to-face relationship with each other unfolds vulnerably and intimately to distinguish the primacy of who they are and whose they are as God’s whole and uncommon family. This relational outcome composes the irreplaceable infrastructure of the church—the heart of the church not in secondary organizational terms as the body of Christ but only in primary relational terms as the family of Christ.
Persons being vulnerable for the intimate involvement of family love is not optional but required for the church to be whole and live whole in face-to-face relationship together in likeness of the face of the whole palpable Word. Vulnerableness and intimacy are in integral interaction and should not be separated. Being vulnerable is not an end in itself or it will shift into self-determination as merely transparency or accessibility. The only relational purpose of being vulnerable is for intimacy in relationships together. The glory of God involves the intimacy of the trinitarian persons in the face of the whole of God’s innermost heart, vulnerably integrated in the relational nature of the Trinity’s intimate involvement with each other; and the vulnerable heart of this relational God created us in his intimate likeness as persons and in relationships.
Intimacy is a need that all persons were created to have, which was whole-ly responded to and completely filled in the beginning by face-to-face relationship together (Gen 2:18,25). Even the human brain verifies the need for relational connection, triggering the release of its “master chemical” called oxytocin. From the beginning, however, that intimacy was substituted with illusion and simulations in relationships, thereby redefining intimacy with various alternatives—notably quantitative from outer in that required ‘cover-ups’ and confused sex with intimacy—that reduced intimacy from face-to-face relational involvement. Intimacy in the beginning was defined in whole relational terms by the innermost heart of the whole person who is involved with the heart of another whole person in order to enact the primacy of face-to-face relational connection that God created for relationship together in wholeness—not the association of fragmentary parts of what persons do and have, which is the common substitute that prevails in the human context. The need for this intimacy may not be readily apparent in the midst of alternative substitutes today shaped by our surrounding contexts. Sex has been a classic substitute and social media has become the modern alternative feeding our need for intimacy. Yet, church gatherings create similar illusion and simulations, whereby indirect relational connections are mistaken for face-to-face involvement.
The human heart, however, is not confused by intimacy substitutes, though it is easily misled in search for intimacy. And the Christian hearts occupying our churches may even be less aware of their God-created need for intimacy with each other, either assuming intimacy (or its so-called substitute) with God is sufficient or assuming what they experience at church is all that’s available now with more to come in heaven. In the meantime, God’s family love is engaged and experienced by what persons do rather than in the primacy of persons involved vulnerably face to face with each other for intimate relationship together distinguished as God’s family.
The main obstacle to intimacy is the need to be vulnerable with the face of our person. A vulnerable face doesn’t hide behind the mask of distinctions such as roles, titles, resources, achievements, social and physical traits, or anything else a person does or has. This certainly can be very threatening to a person, especially if their identity or self-worth is at stake. If the threat to be vulnerable is perceived to be greater than the need for intimacy, then face-to-face relationships will be regarded as, at best, only an ideal that is too impractical to pursue, much less experience. Yet, the cost to be vulnerable is directly correlated to the need for redemptive change by the person, in which the old can die so that the person can be transformed to the new. Who and what unfold is the relational outcome of intimacy with the face of the palpable Word, which indeed requires the face of the person for this transformation to unfold. Does the need for this intimacy get lost in persons’ fear to be vulnerable? If it does, then the reality is not about persons avoiding vulnerability. Rather the reality is about persons protecting and maintaining their engagement in self-determination. Being vulnerable exposes the weaknesses, deficiencies, failures, and all other shortcomings of persons, which reduce their self-determined value—measured, of course, in a comparative process with others that precludes such vulnerability. Any threat to this effort is a threat to the person’s survival, and this perception is contrary to and in conflict with the face of the palpable Word, and also is incompatible with and incongruent to face-to-face relationship together with each other—which illusion and simulations subtly mask out of necessity.
Ironically, but not surprisingly, self-determination is maintained even through participation in church ministry. Accordingly, protecting this engagement requires minimizing or eliminating face-to-face involvement together, a process promoted by many church leaders and participated in by many church members. To be vulnerable with each other would expose the effort by these persons to be defined and determined by what they do in church ministry; this was the dynamic the disciples engaged with Mary. Unfortunately, these persons are widely reinforced by others in and related to the church, who then together sustain church practice minimizing or eliminating face-to-face connections. Is it any wonder that intimacy as created by God is hard to find at church, and that church experience leaves many hearts hungering for more? The heart of the church, its irreplaceable infrastructure, has been replaced by a substitute.
Face-to-face relations are perceived as disrespectful in some cultures, and intimacy is seen as shameful in others. This is a reality in the diversity of the world, which needs to be understood more in their common-ness rather than their uniqueness. The question facing the global church is whether the fragmentary human context will shape the church in such diversity (as in multiculturalism or pluralism, cf. the church in Thyatira, Rev 2:19-20), or whether “the wholeness of Christ is the only determinant” for the church, as Paul made imperative (Col 3:15). For Paul, this is nonnegotiable if the church expects to unfold transformed in wholeness with the palpable Word. Some may perceive this as dogmatism, yet only because their theological lens has been narrowed down to referential terms or is shaped by a theological anthropology of reduced ontology and function. The issue is not between multicultural and monocultural, between a diversity of narratives and a grand-metanarrative. The issue from the beginning remains between reductionism and wholeness, and what is only fragmentary or whole. Therefore, anything that minimizes or eliminates face-to-face involvement is simply fragmentary; anything that prevents intimacy can never be whole.
These are the contingencies in Jesus’ relational imperative for all his disciples to “love one another just as I loved you” that are nonnegotiable. They are nonnegotiable not because of dogmatism but because the alternatives narrow down persons and relationships to reduced ontology and function, which prevents them from their primacy of being whole and living together in wholeness. These are the experiential truth and reality confronting the global church today in the diversity of a globalizing world, more fragmentary than ever in the encompassing digital age. And the challenge facing the global church in this fragmentation is to be distinguished by the primacy of its persons and relationships together in wholeness as God’s whole and uncommon family, and thus distinguished from the fragmentary and the common. For the global church to meet this challenge it must first meet the two contingencies for all of Jesus’ disciples. Otherwise, it will not be distinguished in who and whose they are and thus not be of significance in, to and for the world.
Therefore, until the church—any and all churches in the global North and South—comes face to face with each other in the relational involvement of God’s family love, the church will remain fragmentary and not be whole, regardless of its correct theology (as with the church in Ephesus, Rev 2:1-4) or its successful practice (as with the church in Sardis, Rev 3:1-2). When persons and relationships become primary in the church only on this relational basis, this church steps out on the relational path to wholeness with the face of the palpable Word. For the church to unfold in the primacy of its persons and relationships, the faces of those belonging to the church must be involved face to face with each other along with the palpable Word. Anything less than or any substitutes for face-to-face involvement diverts the church from the path to wholeness, with the relational consequence of hearts longing for intimacy, persons living as relational orphans, and churches serving as orphanages—all of which have no significance and bear no good news for persons and relationships occupying the fragmentary human context in the human condition of reduced ontology and function.
The breadth of human migration in the world today exceeds any precedent in human history, with the tide still rising. The depth underlying this migration descends to the level only established by the precedent of the human condition and its fragmentation of the globalizing world. This is the human context facing the global church. And the immediate question for the church is “Has it met the challenge of face-to-face connection and involvement both with the palpable Word and with each other in order to face the challenge of the globalizing world and be involved face to face with this human context?”
Many Christians and churches would likely ask “Why do we have to wait and meet the other challenges before we address the needs of the world?” That’s a fair question, yet one that’s focused only on situations and circumstances, and that does not address their underlying depth of the human condition. Would we be quick to act if that action reflected, reinforced or sustained the human condition? Such premature action can be misguided—for example, serving a common good that’s ‘good without wholeness’—and thus in reality does exactly that. The human condition from the beginning has promoted the common ‘good without wholeness’, and such effort for this common good then inadvertently is complicit with the human condition. Moreover, the human condition is commonly perceived to operate only in ‘sin without reductionism’, and any effort that addresses sin without reductionism in the world also then unknowingly reinforces and sustains the human condition. So, yes, all Christians and churches must by nature wait and meet the above challenges before they meet the challenge facing them in the world.
This qualified relational process also unfolds from Jesus’ contingencies of loving each other, which now extends to his disciples facing the world: “By meeting these contingencies everyone will know that you are my disciples” (Jn 13:35). And as Jesus prayed for his family: “Just as you Father have sent me into the world, on this relational basis I have sent them into the world”; therefore, living whole in face-to-face relationship together is required in order to “be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you…so that the world may believe that you have sent me…that the church family may become completely whole in our likeness so that the world may know of our presence and involvement and have loved the church family just as you loved me” (Jn 17:18,21, NIV, 23). This integral relational process unfolds from the ek-eis relational dynamic Jesus composed in his prayer (17:14-18, discussed below), which provides the ongoing relational connection necessary with the palpable Word for reciprocating contextualization and triangulation with the world for the church family to be distinguished and have significance in the human context.
It is indispensable for the church to be distinguished as the family of Christ and thus to face the world in the relational significance just as the Trinity has loved the church family. Therefore, it is nonnegotiable for the church to be involved relationally face to face with the world just as how the embodied Word and palpable Word have been and continue to be involved with the world. This face-to-face involvement is composed only in whole relational terms uncommon to the common—thus nonnegotiable and irreducible to the common shaping from the surrounding context—in order to be distinguished whole as God’s family in the world so that the fragmented globalizing world can be made whole.
In the Great Commission (Mt 28:16-20), Jesus already assumes that his disciples will face the world, so there is no imperative to “Go” but just the qualifier for “as you go…” (in Gk aorist passive). Yet, there are also contingencies for his disciples going into the world. Jesus prayed that his family is “not of the world just as I am not of the world” (Jn 17:14,16). Even though his family does not belong to the world, they are “in [en] the world” (v.11). So, how does his church family live in the world and not become of the world and thus belong to it?
Being distinguished from the world involves the contingency for his church family to be relationally connected to “just as I am not of the world.” That is, Jesus illuminated the relational process necessary to be connected both to the face of who he is and to the uncommon source of what he is—“not of the world.” To be connected to the uncommon source of what he is in order not to belong to the common’s world requires the distinguished relational connection with the Uncommon “out of [ek] the world.” On the one hand, Jesus does not pray for this connection in terms of his family’s spatial location (e.g. as separatists or in asceticism); but, on the other hand, Jesus composes the relational dynamic for his family to be relationally connected and involved with the Uncommon distinctly “ek the common” and its shaping influence. Ek is the face-to-face involvement with the uncommon God that distinguishes his family as ‘whose it is’, so that it will “not belong to the common” while “in the world” and thus have the significance of the identity of ‘who it is’ without ambiguity or shallowness (as Jesus made imperative, Mt 5:13-16). In other words, when Jesus said “out of the world,” he wasn’t transmitting information about his family’s future location but clearly communicated the relational condition of his family’s ongoing involvement with their uncommon God, in reciprocating contextualization while in the context of the common’s world.
On the basis of this antecedent contingency being met with ek-relational involvement, Jesus then relationally sends (or commissions, apostello) his family “into [eis] the world” with the interrelated contingency “just as you Father have sent me into the world” (v.18). Just as the face of Jesus’ person was relationally involved both face to face and intrusively into the world, his disciples follow his whole person (not mere example) on his vulnerable and intrusive relational path into the world—to be “where and how I am” (Jn 12:26). This integral ek-eis relational dynamic is the only basis for the family of Christ to be in the world, and to face the common distinguished as God’s uncommon family, and to come face to face with the fragmented human condition as God’s whole and uncommon family. These contingencies serve to distinguish the church in its relational significance just as the face of the embodied Word and the palpable Word have been vulnerably present and intimately involved face to face both with persons belonging to God’s family and with persons belonging to the world (who also could occupy the church).
In contrast to other disciples in the ancient Mediterranean world who limited their discipleship to following the teachings or example of their teachers, Jesus unequivocally defined his disciples as persons who follow the face of his person in the primacy of face-to-face relationship together, wherever and however his face is involved (as noted above in Jn 12:26). These persons are the “disciples of all nations” whom Jesus made imperative in his commission to make, nurture, mentor, train (matheteuo) in order to compose his family of all persons, peoples as well as nations (Mt 28:19-20). The faces of these persons are involved in face-to-face relationship together integrally with the whole and uncommon God and with each other in God’s family, whereby with the ek-eis relational dynamic they are involved face to face “into the world.” What unfolds for the church in this relational process emerges from this experiential truth and reality:
All the disciples composing the family of Christ are called to follow the face of Jesus’ person (over his teachings and example) in the primacy of relationship together face to face (not for the primacy of serving); and with the primacy of persons and relationships together, Jesus calls his followers together to be whole, just as the persons and relationship together in the Trinity are—called to be whole in likeness of nothing less than and no substitutes of the whole and uncommon God; and what unfolds integrally from his ‘call to be whole’ are the faces of his family members now “sent into the world to be whole just as the Father sent me into the world” and thus to live whole in the primacy of face-to-face relationship together, and on this relational basis to be involved face to face with the fragmented condition of the world to make it whole; therefore, the church (local, regional, global) as the family of Christ is integrally by nature inseparably ‘called to be whole’ and ‘sent to make whole’, nothing less from the subtle ‘sin without reductionism’ and no substitutes from the common ‘good without wholeness’.
The church family cannot ignore or be unresponsive to the breadth and depth of the human condition, especially since that condition likely also continues to shape the ontology and function of the persons and relationships belonging to the church. As emerged from the beginning, the church is accountable for simplistically practicing ‘good without wholeness’ and for simply addressing ‘sin without reductionism’—“Where are you?” and “What are you doing here?”
If the face of Christians and churches are not going to be vulnerable in order to be involved face to face with the world—“just as I am with you and have been sent into the world”—then they neither are distinguished from the common prevailing for persons and relationships in human contexts that composes the human condition; nor do they have significance for persons and relationships in reduced ontology and function to make them whole—not only for those in the world but more immediately for those within the church. Without the persons and relationships of the church being distinguished and having significance in wholeness, do those Christians and churches have any justification engaging the world in service to Christ? They, for example, cannot use conventional evangelism for their purpose and appeal to the Great Commission for their basis, because “just as I am and have been sent” will not support or justify such engagement.
The practice of much evangelism today in reality does not proclaim the whole gospel of who came and what has come. When evangelism proclaims a fragmentary gospel, its focus may be on ‘saved from sin’ but sin has been narrowed down to ‘sin without reductionism’. How could such practice, for example, critique a social gospel or the prosperity gospel? Moreover, when evangelism is engaged without face, its salvation becomes truncated merely to being saved from sin (and only sin without reductionism) and lacks the complete soteriology of integrally being saved to the whole ontology and function of persons and relationships together in God’s whole and uncommon family. Without the face of persons and relationships in wholeness, how could such practice be identified with the face of the embodied Word to be distinguished in the world as the family of Christ? Without being distinguished by this face, how could such practice be involved face to face with the face of the palpable Word in order to have relational significance in the world for persons and relationships in the human condition of reduced ontology and function? Accordingly, many occupying churches today are either being shortchanged in their faith by the church, or also shortchanging the church (including God) by the shape of their faith. In either condition, do Christians and churches have any significance professing their faith at all?
To face a globalizing yet pluralistic world with competing faiths that is inevitably engaged in a comparative process constructing stratified relations and systems of inequality, the church is challenged today, yet not to be outstanding above others. Rather, in contrast and even in conflict, the church is challenged to be distinguished beyond what’s common, and thus not stratified apart from others but with the significance of being vulnerably involved face to face with others who are apart, even with those others apart in the upper strata of human life. ‘To be apart’ has no distinction in the human condition because that’s its common condition at all levels of human life. As the whole gospel makes definitive in experiential truth, it is not good for any and all who are apart from the whole of persons and relationships whom God created, responds to and is involved with face to face for the primacy of their wholeness—just as and in likeness of the whole and uncommon God.
The distinguished depth and relational significance of Jesus’ “just as I am involved and have been sent” is illuminated for us in a key yet simple interaction (Lk 7:11-17), whose depth and significance are often not given much attention or simply not understood. In the practice of purity in Judaism, exposing oneself to uncleanness was avoided as much as possible—notably the common practices in the surrounding context—which became legalistic with the law as a template of conformity. The face of Jesus, however, vulnerably intruded into human contexts to make face-to-face connection with persons no matter what he exposed himself to. When he came face to face with a funeral procession, his face didn’t just observe or even participate in it (as was custom). The face of Jesus’ whole person was moved with compassion when he vulnerably came face to face with this widow at her only son’s funeral. With this relational connection first with the face of this widow, Jesus then intervened on her situation and essentially got his hands dirty, which thus assumed to dirty his face (i.e. according to Num 19:11-22). Yet, the issue of Jesus’ involvement in the world was not about purity. For him the issue was, and for his family it remains, the ongoing issue between the wholeness of persons and relationships, and their reduction in the surrounding contexts of the world—which may include the contexts of churches. What Jesus did next was only secondary to how he was involved face to face with her; and what he did must be integrated into the primacy of why he was involved or his secondary action (however outstanding) loses its significance. How and why so?
It is indispensable for the church to understand the face of Jesus’ involvement face to face with his family and with others in the world, in order for the face of the church today to be involved face to face “just as I am with you and have been sent to others.” The face of the embodied Word is often observed apart from his primary relational context and process “out of the world.” Then, of course, the focus on the Word shifts merely to what Jesus does and his teachings, both of which by themselves narrow down the Word without the relational significance of face. How Jesus was involved in this unexpected and seemingly arbitrary encounter, and why he was involved, are usually lost or ignored next to the miracle Jesus did. Yet, this miracle is really only secondary to the primary that it points to. The how and why underlying this common encounter illuminate the depth and significance of the face of Jesus’ “just as I am involved with you and have been sent to others.”
The face of Jesus’ heart opened to her and felt compassion for her person; and her situation was integrated into the primacy of her person. His feelings indicated the qualitative heart of his whole person, vulnerably present with his face in the human context, which cannot be narrowed down to what Jesus did. This also illuminated the depth level of his ongoing relational involvement face to face with those who were not whole and unable to function in wholeness, which Jesus made evident with Levi in the significance of Hosea 6:6. Without her son, this widow in the ancient Mediterranean world lacked value and would suffer social illness (kakos, as Jesus implied about Levi and Zacchaeus). Jesus responded to her by restoring her son—a further expression of the face of God’s whole relational response to the human condition.
In this seemingly limited moment, Jesus demonstrated more than his power over illness and death; and by this relational act beyond intervention, he demonstrated more than the limitations of a messianic role. The witnesses of this miracle were convinced that God had come to fulfill the covenant and messianic promise (Lk 7:16-17). Yet, the relational significance of what Jesus distinguished with this widow appears to be lost in their covenant and messianic expectations shaped by human terms, rather than the meaning of the covenant in God’s relational response composed only in whole relational terms. This reflects the absence of whole theological understanding and, consequently, it demonstrates lacking what indeed signifies good news for the human condition. In other words, their working theology and gospel were fragmentary.
Even though this widow was at risk in her situation and circumstances—not an unimportant reality that should not be ignored—it was her primary relational condition apart from wholeness that Jesus faced as fulfillment of God’s relational response of grace, composing the gospel to restore persons and relationships together to wholeness and what Jesus saves to. This is the distinguished depth and relational significance by which the embodied Word sends his family into the world to face the persons and relationships composing the human condition; and this vulnerable involvement necessitates the ek-eis face-to-face relationship with the face of the palpable Word for the family of Christ to be distinguished and have significance into the common human contexts prevailing for all persons, peoples and nations.
The face of the embodied Word unfolded into the face of the palpable Word, who then unfolded into the face of Paul with the relational outcome for his whole theology and practice to unfold into the church family of Christ, so that the face of the church would unfold into the world face to face. The face of Paul further demonstrated with the palpable Word their involvement into the world by directly intruding face to face, for example, with the plurality of religions in the ancient Mediterranean world (Acts 17:16-34). What unfolded is how and why the church today needs to unfold into the modern pluralistic world.
Paul did not shy away from major issues about human life that were raised and debated by religion and science (e.g. cosmology), because involvement with the world necessarily included facing any aspect of human life “just as I am and have been sent.” In the pluralistic context of Athens, he went face to face into the central public forum (agora) of the city to address the vexing mystery of human knowledge facing the Athenians at the Areopagus. And the light Paul shared to illuminate the gap (cf. the dark matter of modern physics) of human knowledge for the Epicurean (a likely forerunner to physics, tending at best, if at all, to deism) and Stoic (religious materialism which was pantheistic) philosophers would not be an anachronism in the halls of modern science, because Paul was addressing the same epistemological and hermeneutic issues. Modern physics, for example, estimates that only 20% of the matter in the universe is known to humans, which is why scientists have put their hope in the Large Hadron Collider and the Higgs boson to expand their estimate. Yet this guesstimate is based on perceiving the universe through the lens of a quantitative interpretive framework from modernism; and this also perceives the same human species in enlarged context yet still from outer in (jointly with neuroscience), and likewise constructs human knowledge from the bottom up (comparable to the tower of Babel, Gen 11:1-4). All of this engages in a process of reductionism, the bias of which is ignored apart from the presence of the whole and thus without the benefit of its illumination.
By coming face to face with this part of the world, Paul demonstrated for us how and why to be involved with any part of or issue in the world. The face of Paul with face-to-face involvement would have felt right at home today in the critical issues of cosmology, anthropology and epistemology. No doubt he would be saddened by how little has changed in these issues and by how much reductionism prevails.
When Paul highlighted the Athenians’ “unknown god” (Acts 17:23), he went beyond contextualizing the gospel in their culture. This opened the door to their worldview to address their epistemological gap (agnostos) and the related hermeneutic blind spot (agnoeo) in their perceptual-interpretive lens. Paul challenged the framework of their worldview with the whole epistemic source (top down, inner out, 17:24-30) necessary for epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction—just as tamiym (being whole) functioned and the pleroma (completeness) of God revealed for Paul (as discussed previously). Moreover, in this decisive challenge Paul points to the implied yet definitive framework of his theological discourse—the wholeness of the embodied Word and the palpable Word who transformed his ontology and function to distinguish his whole theology and practice.
The wholeness of his theological systemic framework is rooted in revelation initiated by God and thus based on whole knowledge from top down in the relational epistemic process, not on fragmented knowledge constructed from bottom up in, at best, a limited epistemic process. It was from this whole systemic framework that Paul addressed the Athenians definitively about epistemology, cosmology, theological cognition and anthropology, their nature and qualitative-relational significance, and the good news that sheds the Light on their unknown—which otherwise would remain mysterious dark matter without it (as modern physics must discover). The outcome from this whole systemic framework in Paul’s theological discourse made conclusive the theology of wholeness, without which the human species will remain reduced and fragmented, unable to realize their ontology in God’s relational whole from top down, inner out.
Paul’s address in the midst of the Areopagus challenged the assumptions of the Athenians’ epistemology and their view of the kosmos. He also affirmed part of their knowledge (acknowledging an unknown god), yet Paul strongly implied the insufficiency of their epistemic process in not pursing this course of knowledge further in the kosmos. This implication is understood by the theological clarity Paul made definitive elsewhere, notably in his Romans epistle.
Whole theology is crucial for intruding in the world, especially coming face to face with other religions. Knowledge about God shaped or constructed by human contextualization is no longer excusable, even with the best of intentions (Rom 1:20; Acts 17:30). Paul was unequivocal about the communicative dimension in the kosmos: “For what can be known about God is plain [phaneros, manifest, open, public] to them, because God has shown them [phaneroo, not merely apokalypto]” (Rom 1:19). What God has revealed is irreducible and thus not subject to reshaping, reconstruction (or deconstruction), any other revision or substitute from bottom up as well as outer in. Yet this was how the Athenians perceived God and interpreted how God functioned, evidenced in Paul’s critique of their practice: “God…does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is served by human hands…an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals” (Acts 17:24-25, 29). These were reductions and substitutes of God that fragmented the whole of God, thus keeping God in the mysterious unknown and embedding them in the human relational condition disconnected from God’s wholeness. Likewise, human persons in general functioned in this reductionism with their substitutes: “for though they had knowledge about God, they did not relationally respond to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise…they reduced and substituted the glory [qualitative being and relational nature] of the irreducible God for images shaped or constructed by a mortal human being…they substituted the truth about God for a reductionism based on human terms functioning in the bottom up and outer in of the creature rather than the top down, inner out of the whole of the Creator” (Rom 1:21-24, 25).
Paul exposed the underlying issue of these persons described above with the clarity of his theological discourse fighting for the whole gospel, which then necessarily also amplified his fight to confront how they indeed functioned as inexcusable (1:20) and inescapable of accountability (1:24a, 26a, 28; Acts 17:30-31). In other words, these human persons engaged the reductionism of sin, functioning in ‘sin as reductionism’ by reshaping, reconstructing or redefining the qualitative whole of Creator-God, as well as the whole of human persons from inner out created in God’s likeness. Thus, they made substitutes by human shaping, construction and terms from bottom up that function in counter-relational work/practices from outer in—often signifying the ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of prevailing alternatives from reductionism, as Paul theologically clarified in the rest of Romans. Even with any good intentions on their part for the common good, they only promoted ‘good without wholeness’ and thus reinforced and sustained the human condition of reduced ontology and function.
When Paul revealed the unknown God to the Athenians, he challenged the assumptions of their theological cognition and their interpretation of how God functions (Acts 17:24-27, 29). This also involved challenging their assumptions about the human person. Their quantitative perception of God in outer-in terms reflected their perception of the human person defined from outer in by what they do: “God…does not live in shrines made by human hands,” nor is “the deity…like…an quantitative image formed by the outer-in doings of mortals.” Furthermore, God does not function on the basis of outer-in doings merely on quantitative terms for a quantitative purpose, which thus should not determine how humans function: the qualitative God is not “served by human hands, as though he needed anything” (perhaps Paul had Psalms 40:6 and 50:8-12 in the back of his mind). The term “serve” (therapeuo, 17:25) means to wait upon, minister to, or to serve as a therapon (servant, attendant, minister). Yet, a therapon needs to be distinguished from a common or domestic servant (oiketes) and a servant-slave (doulos). Therapon denotes a faithful friend to a superior, thus one who is relationally involved with the superior and responds in relational terms to the desires and concerns of that person. Accordingly, Paul was revealing that God is not therapeuo by a human person defined from the outer in of what one does or has. This exposes the influence of reductionism defining persons by their outer-in doing, which, for Paul, was not the function of a therapon, no matter how dedicated in therapeuo. In this, Paul critically revealed the qualitative God functioning from inner out who, therefore, is therapeuo by only a therapon whose relational involvement as a faithful friend defines a qualitative person functioning from inner out—that is, the vulnerable face of the person involved in face-to-face relationship together. By this, the global church today needs to be distinguished with whole theological anthropology to intrude face to face into the world with the significance to make it whole.
Just as Paul demonstrated to the Athenians, the process to deeper knowledge and understanding necessitates first confronting the influence of reductionism in a secondary epistemic dynamic of deconstruction and reconstruction. This secondary epistemic dynamic is conjoined with its counterpart, the primary epistemic dynamic of the universe, in order to vulnerably engage the relational epistemic process for whole knowledge and understanding. As Paul did this for them, and continues to do this for his readers, his complete theological discourse made definitive the whole systemic framework within which the relational dynamic of all life is enacted and engaged and thus makes whole, nothing less and no substitutes. When reductionism is put into correct perspective, then what is indeed good news is clarified, whereby the gospel of wholeness can be understood in its complete relational significance.
What unfolds is irreplaceable for the church to understand face to face, receive as its experiential truth, and respond as its experiential reality. The vulnerable face and intimate face to face of the palpable Word into Paul has provided the whole theology and practice required to unfold into the family of Christ in order to distinguish the church unfolding into nothing less and no substitutes—unfolding integrally face to face with the whole and uncommon God’s presence and involvement, face to face with each other in the church with the relational involvement of God’s whole and uncommon family love, and face to face with the world in the uncommon relational process of God’s whole family.
In the pluralistic world of multiple cultures, ideologies and religions—all of which compete in the human comparative process—the church (local, regional, global) is challenged, if not confronted, to be distinguished to have significance beyond what’s common. This brings us back to listening more carefully to what Jesus declared as paradigmatic and axiomatic for all his disciples: “The measure you use is the church you get” (Mk 4:24).
The embodied Word came to us with nothing less than the whole of God and no substitutes for “the glory of God in the face of Christ” (as Paul made conclusive, 2 Cor 4:6). The church must examine closely the measure it uses for who came and what has come because that’s the only church it gets. The issues for the church involve both its Christology and soteriology and the often neglected underlying importance of its theological anthropology and its view of sin. Do the church’s measures distinguish the church in the pluralistic world and give the church significance for the fragmentary human context?
The church cannot expect to be whole in its life together with each other and to live whole into the world with anything less and any substitutes in its theology and practice. Just as the vulnerable and intimate face of the whole embodied Word transitioned into the vulnerably present and intimately involved face of the whole palpable Word, this face of God came face to face with and thereby into the face of Paul in the reciprocal relational process that composed the whole theology and practice for the church. Whole theology and practice with the face of the whole palpable Word are the only experiential truth and reality that unfold into the family of Christ, God’s whole and uncommon family. The church today, with all its parts, is accountable to unfold into nothing less and no substitutes.
Paul fought for nothing less and no substitutes for the family of Christ and against both anything less than wholeness in the church’s theology and any substitutes for wholeness in the church’s practice, no matter the quantity and/or success of the church’s parts. His fight unfolded with nonnegotiable relational imperatives for the church in order that the measures used by the church have the relational outcome that distinguishes its theology and practice “just as who came and what has come.” “The wholeness of Christ” is the only measure (brabeuo) for the face of persons and relationships face to face “called to one body to be whole” (Col 3:15)—the imperative measure of nothing less and no substitutes. Integrated with this relational imperative is to “let the face of the whole embodied Word into the vulnerably present and intimately involved face of the whole palpable Word” also “be intimately involved [enoikeio] in you face to face,” for the unfolding of the church’s involvement together with “one another” and its relational worship “to the whole and uncommon God,” in the primacy of ongoing relationships together with nothing less and no substitutes (Col 3:16-17).
Paul’s joint fight for the whole of the family of Christ and against reductionism in its theology and practice is more necessary today than is perceived. Nothing less and no substitutes are continuous issues for the church because reductionism is an ongoing influence with alternatives of anything less and any substitutes—namely with ontological simulations of what’s good for the church by ‘good without wholeness’, and with epistemological illusion in church theology and practice of sin without reductionism. The presence and influence of reductionism in the church is problematic to address and thus change, when reductionism’s most subtle influence on the church is either not recognized or ignored in the following: Christians and church selectivity of, with and in the Word, which exposes shaping God’s communication by fragmentary human terms over the primacy of God’s whole relational terms, and thereby also composing relationship with God on our terms..
When Christians and churches in the pluralistic world become selective in receiving and embracing what God reveals in relational terms, then they become simply a religion subject to comparative religions. Selectivity is not unique to modern times but emerged from the primordial garden (“Did God say those words?”). This process has been engaged throughout the history of God’s people—evolving with ever increasing subtlety and sophistication, namely by traditions and critical studies of the Bible, and simply legitimated by sociocultural influences or just self-determination. As from the beginning, however, selectivity utilizes a narrowed-down epistemic field for God’s words (“you will not die, be reduced or fragmented”) and a biased hermeneutic/interpretive lens (“know good and evil...become like God”) to selectively form the basis for its conclusions (“good for wisdom”).
Christians and churches need to understand the reality that using selectivity as the measure of the Word involves the following:
Selectivity is a seductive measure that
opens the door to “free” persons and churches to engage explicitly or
subtly in self-determination, the illusion and simulation of which
necessitates a selective theological anthropology of reduced ontology
and function that transposes the primacy of persons and relationships in
God’s whole relational terms to the secondary position under fragmentary
2. Selectivity is a self-protective measure that closes the door to being vulnerable with the face of the person and thereby imposes limits and constraints on face-to-face connection both with God and with others, the measured engagement of which is legitimated both by that selective theological anthropology and by selectivity of God’s terms for relationship together—which intentionally yet subtly engages relationship with God on one’s own measured terms, perhaps justified by pragmatism or even by the stigma of dogmatism.
The subtlety of selectivity’s seductive and self-protective measures makes it quite easy to pervade churches today where self-determination prevails, even in collectivist contexts. Moreover, this subtle practice is quite honestly even the popular choice in churches where not being vulnerable with the face of persons and in relationships face to face are the norm, with the practice of the exception even frowned upon or marginalized.
Christians and churches cannot take lightly the selectivity of the Word, because the relational consequences directly bear upon the integrity of their identity and thus their witness to others. When Jesus made it imperative for all his disciples to “be relationally involved face to face with one another—that is, love—just as I am vulnerably and intimately involved with you,” Peter immediately focused on Jesus’ previous words and asked “Lord, where are you going?” (Jn 13:33-36). Was Peter selective with the embodied Word, not listening to the face of the Word or paying attention to the primacy of face-to-face involvement together just as Jesus was with him? In reality, Peter engaged selectivity’s seductive measure to establish his discipleship by self-determination rather than face-to-face involvement, which then also exposed his self-protective measure not to be vulnerable with the face of his person (13:37-38). It is not surprising but to be expected that later Jesus asked Peter “do you love me?” with the emphasis on “Follow me in the primacy of face-to-face relationship together.” Yet, even these relational words Peter heard selectively by his self-protective measure in order to keep relational distance from the face of the embodied Word’s primary terms for relationship together; accordingly, Peter diverted the attention to secondary matters, “Lord, what about him?” (Jn 21:17-22).
Part of the major relational consequences from Peter’s selectivity of the embodied Word and the palpable Word emerged with the neglect of minority members of the church (Acts 6:1) and discrimination in the church, due in large part to Peter’s false distinctions that resulted from his selective listening of Jesus’ earlier words on impurity (Acts 10-11). And the issue of discrimination in the church wasn’t resolved theologically until later (Acts 15), nor was there transformation in Peter’s practice until Paul had to confront him face to face in God’s family love (Gal 2:11-14). Christians and churches cannot be selective about applying these relational consequences from their own selectivity.
Indeed, selectivity of and in the Word vulnerably revealed by the face of Christ, combined with selectivity (if not neglect) of the palpable Word present and involved ongoingly today, are immeasurably consequential for the church (local, regional, global). It affects the heart of the church, whose identity is the family of Christ and whose witness is distinguished and has significance only in the primacy of persons and relationship together in wholeness, nothing less and no substitutes, just as the palpable Word is involved with them to unfold whole together face to face with each other and into the world.
As long as the church engages in selectivity of the Word communicated in relational terms, it will neither be distinguished in its identity nor illuminate its witness. No matter what quantitative factors give the church distinction in human contextualization, this distinction at best only highlights its self-determination—as demonstrated by the church in Sardis, whose church practice was highly successful but without the significance of wholeness. As previously illuminated by the psalmist, only “the unfolding of your words gives light” (Ps 119:130) to distinguish the whole ontology and function of the face of God (v.135)—who vulnerably unfolded into the face of the embodied Word, who integrally unfolded into the palpable Word together in order to unfold into Paul, so that the church will unfold with the palpable Word into nothing less and no substitutes. For the church to dilute this relational process and fragment this ongoing reciprocal relationship exposes the influence of reductionism in its selective measure of the Word; and this measure used by the church determines the prevailing identity and practice the church gets in its ontology and function together and thus has in the world today. Church whole ontology and function can only be distinguished by and unfolds directly from the unmistakable face of God distinguished in whole ontology and function. Anything less and any substitutes of the church emerge simply as just a religion.
Besides with his main disciples, selectivity of the embodied Word was a common experience for Jesus (e.g. Jn 6) and what he confronted and contended with (e.g. Mt 15:8-9); and this fight against reductionism extended into the palpable Word in post-ascension (e.g. Rev 2-3). As Paul continued fighting this selectivity (e.g. “nothing beyond what is written,” 1 Cor 4:6), this certainly included the oral tradition (e.g. the Jesus tradition of the early church), which was the main form of communicating the Word in a less literate context. With the palpable Word, Paul exposed in the church in Corinth that selectivity results in fragmentation, which reduces the ontology and function of the God, persons and relationships composing the church—which then is consequential for reducing their faith to just another religion. The church in a pluralistic world cannot ignore this consequence of the selective measure of the Word it uses.
Selectivity is appealing for Christians and churches in a religiously diverse context, especially where Christianity is the minority religion. A selective approach can soften any templates imposed on others for their conformity—templates that are also composed by selectivity, as Christian Jews imposed on Gentile Christians—the force of which was commonly exercised by Western missionaries (who used their own selectivity of the Word) and, even with good intentions, that had relational consequences still reverberating to the present. Yet, in contrast to and also in conflict with colonial Western Christianity, the distinguished nature of the Christian faith, Christ’s disciples and the family of Christ is the experiential truth of integrally (1) being a minority, that is, uncommon in ontology, as in the ek “out of” relational dynamic from Jesus’ formative family prayer, and (2) about functioning uncommonly in the relational involvement of God’s family love, in the primacy of relationships that intrudes face to face just as the face of the whole Word does—all for the relational purpose and outcome of wholeness for persons and relationships, not for their conformity to selective and thus fragmentary terms. Nothing less and no substitutes of this uncommon relational involvement affirms persons and seeks to build face-to-face relationships regardless of religious differences; and selectivity limits and constrains deeper connections and thus reinforces and sustains persons and relationship in the human condition, even while engaging in evangelism and proclaiming the gospel.
As prevalent as other religions (including ideologies and cultures) may be for a Christian minority, it is inadequate to address those persons primarily through their respective religion. Inter-faith dialogues, for example, must be engaged in relational terms with practice in the primacy of persons and relationships and secondarily in theological terms. Even in adversarial situations, they must be seen primarily as persons, with their face from inner out and be engaged in the primacy of relationships, with all other matters secondary even though still important (as Paul demonstrated at the forum in Athens). This experiential truth is the reality “just as” we consistently see Jesus (assuming no selectivity) interacting with others, even indirectly at first with the foreign woman who claimed crumbs fallen from the master’s table and whom his disciples wanted no part of (Mt 15:21-28). The issues that emerge as primary then are less about religion and more about life matters, and those issues that directly affect all persons and relationships regardless of religion. To the extent that a religion addresses these life concerns, on that basis mutual ground emerges for a religious exchange, yet is still secondary to and never as a substitute for the primary connection of persons in relationships.
Furthermore, directly related to the issue of selectivity is the issue of continuity-discontinuity with the unfolding faith of God’s people. Today in the global North, there is more discontinuity than continuity that can be highlighted, whereas in the global South there appears to be more continuity. Yet, generally speaking, the global North church reasons that discontinuity can also reflect progress and development from primal, naïve or unsophisticated thinking, all of which point to the superiority of ‘the wise and learned’ of the West (cf. Lk 10:21). For them, continuity is dubious and can even reflect continuity with primal religion and not Judeo-Christianity. Underlying their lens, however, is not an advanced theological anthropology but a reduced theological anthropology of the ontology and function of persons and relationships, which Jesus exposed in contrast to persons and relationships together in whole ontology and function (the significance of Lk 10:21). This essentially narrowed-down thinking and lens also reveals a weak view of sin that either doesn’t understand reductionism—especially evident in a modernist framework with its assumptions—or ignores its presence and influence as a result of selectivity with the Word. The results are to be expected from the selective measure used—both as a seductive measure for self-determination and a self-protective measure to not be vulnerable—and anything more expected to unfold are epistemological illusion and ontological simulation from the assumption of reductionism that “you will not be reduced or fragmented.”
The global South church also should be aware of its selectivity and awakened to its seductive and self-protective measures. Continuity should not be as much of a concern as unfolding with the face of the whole palpable Word into the primacy of nothing less and no substitutes for the church and those persons and relationships belonging to it. This even precludes continuity with prevailing practices from the surrounding context (such as culture) that reduce the primary.
Usually when discourse from global theologies and discussion by churches do mention sin, it is either in general referential terms or moral-ethical terms; and this limited conversation tends not to address the presence and influence of sin in their particular culture and thus that culture’s shaping of church theology and practice for persons and relationship. The consequence of silence (including of our human condition in the church) weakens the church’s view of sin (as in the global North church above) that does not listen to sin as reductionism, which includes neither listening to the person (reflecting a reduced theological anthropology) nor listening to the human condition (reflecting a fragmentary gospel and truncated soteriology). These lacks subtly shape the church with practice by persons and of relationships that unintentionally reflect, reinforce or sustain the human condition prevailing in the human context and now pervading the church (our human condition).
Yet, as Jesus promised with the Spirit, the face of the palpable Word will clarify and correct if we listen carefully to his relational communication in only relational terms—that is, listen face to face, without referentialization or selectivity of the Word. Therefore, just as the palpable Word in post-ascension communication critiqued successful, popular, doctrinally correct, dedicated, missional, activist, and status quo churches, we need to listen because those churches exist today in similar theology and practice. And we cannot deny the fact that the Spirit grieves when the church does not give primacy to persons and relationships, and therefore doesn’t practice their wholeness as God’s new creation family, in likeness “just as” the whole of who, what and how the uncommon God is (as Paul illuminated conclusively for the church, Eph 4:20-32).
The experiential truth and reality for Christians and the church are that we cannot talk about God’s presence and involvement, and know and understand the whole and uncommon God, by the fragmentary terms of selectivity. Nor can we without addressing the selective measures that counter the face of God and are contrary to the Word’s whole relational terms for both communication in self-disclosure and relationship with us—the relational consequence of which humanly shapes God in our theology and practice according to the image of our person and the likeness of our relationships. What needs to be addressed here is the subtlety of sin and the pervasiveness of sin as reductionism that composes our human condition in the church.
The church unfolds distinguished and with significance only with face-to-face involvement with the face of the whole palpable Word. The church unfolds ongoingly with the whole palpable Word only transformed in wholeness in the likeness “just as” the trinitarian persons and their relationship together. Therefore, the church as God’s whole and uncommon family unfolds with the ongoing vulnerable involvement of the whole palpable Word, distinguished in the significance of wholeness for persons and relationships together unfolding into their primacy of nothing less and no substitutes. And this relational outcome continues to unfold into the church with whole knowledge and understanding of the face of God, with the experiential truth of the gospel of wholeness, with the experiential reality of complete soteriology being saved from reductionism and saved to wholeness in God’s uncommon family, whereby the church unfolds into the globalizing, pluralistic, fragmented world with the distinguished relational significance face to face to make the prevailing human relational condition whole.
Can this experiential truth and reality unfold into the church today? It will with the face of the whole palpable Word in the vulnerable measure of face-to-face relationship together with nothing less and no substitutes. Jesus promises that the measure the church uses will be the church it gets. So, “do not grieve the palpable Word by using a measure of anything less or any substitutes.”
 This discussion is found in John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008).
 A full discussion of Paul’ interaction in this public forum is found in my 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., 106-110, 112-113.
©2016 T. Dave Matsuo