Jesus into Paul
Embodying the Theology and Hermeneutic of the Whole Gospel
The Kingdom into Church
Seek the primacy of his kingdom and the whole of God’s relational righteousness.
Who came and what has come remain ambiguous for the gospel if its experiential truth of whole relationship together is not relationally based in the Trinity and, accordingly, the complete Christology of the whole of God. The relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul is composed conjointly by the experiential truth of who came (Paul’s pleroma Christology) and in the experiential reality of what has come (Paul’s pleroma theology for the church). The whole of Jesus into the whole of Paul emerged in the ‘what has come’ of the kingdom and the ‘Who saved to’. This experiential reality unfolded into Paul with the emergence of the kingdom into the church—the relational outcome ‘already’ of the gospel’s whole relationship together. In other words (relational not referential), the primary relational outcome from the relational dynamic of Jesus into Paul was the transition of the kingdom ‘already’ being distinguished integrally in the church. For Jesus, the kingdom was the relational realm of his qualitative focus from outside the universe (cf. Jn 18:36) that encompassed the whole of God’s whole. Paul had a more localized focus—yet not from human contextualization—on the qualitative kingdom (e.g. Rom 14:17) for the experiential reality of Christ’s kingdom in the church as the pleroma of Christ, the embodying of the whole of God’s whole (Eph 1:23). This transition of the kingdom into church and their convergence by necessity goes through the cross of Christ, the process of which is often misperceived in Paul given his seemingly central focus on the cross. Any issue between the kingdom and the cross emerges from how Jesus and Paul are perceived and whether they are congruent or even compatible. The importance of the kingdom to Paul is not reflected in the amount of attention that he gives to the cross over a quantitative focus on the kingdom. If one integrally understands the meaning and significance of both kingdom and cross, as did Paul, then they are inseparable and thus irreducible and nonnegotiable to the shaping and variations seen in theology and function, both in church and the academy. Understanding the whole of Paul is critical to understanding the whole in Paul, otherwise there is only fragmentary knowledge and understanding of who came and what has come.
Certainly, the kingdom had undergone human shaping, notably as nation-state in Second Temple Judaism, that parallels human shaping of the church—even with good intentions of serving and sharing the gospel—both of which involve the human shaping of relationships, and thus reinforcing or sustaining the human relational condition. The kingdom into church both illuminates the qualitative significance and distinguishes the relational significance of the whole of God’s whole emerging from Jesus into Paul—in contrast and conflict with the human shaping of relationship together.
Distinguishing and understanding what has come—that is, distinguishing it from our human shaping—has been problematic and necessitates the whole knowledge and understanding from complete Christology. An incomplete Christology is insufficient to distinguish the relationship of God from human shaping, which is necessary to delineate the kingdom in other than referential or quantitative terms.
What emerges from salvation and being born again (from above), and is synonymous with eternal life and the eschatological hope, is the kingdom of God (or heaven, used by Mt to be indirect in reverence for God for Jewish readers). The primary questions involved in the interpretive issue of the kingdom are inseparable: (1) what is the kingdom that has come? and (2) when does the kingdom emerge? As much as the imminence of the kingdom has been debated, I contend this cannot be adequately answered until the kingdom itself is sufficiently defined and understood. When this is understood, I further emphasize that the question of its imminence becomes secondary—not unimportant, only less significant in the eschatological plan of God’s thematic action.
In his hermeneutical discourse defending his salvific work, Jesus exposed a false eschatological hope of those Jews incorrectly embedded in the Scriptures (Jn 5:39-40, noted earlier). This eschatological hope was the life to come, or the kingdom of God’s kingship and sovereign rule, which John’s Gospel correctly embodied in the full relational context and process of the whole of God. Keeping this hermeneutic in mind, we shift to Luke’s Gospel, who was concerned for a kingdom for all peoples.
The term “kingdom of God” is not found in the OT, yet the reality and expectation of God’s kingship and sovereign rule as vested in Messiah are embedded in the OT. The issue then and now is how the Scriptures are approached, and thereby how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
When some Pharisees questioned Jesus about the coming of the kingdom of God, he could have replied as he did in the above discourse and with Nicodemus: “You study and teach the Scriptures but do you not understand this?” (cf. Jn 3:10) Yet, the clear implication of such a reply came in another response he gave elsewhere: “The kingdom of God is not coming with things that can be observed, nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is,’ or ‘There it is!’ For, in fact, the kingdom of God is within you” (Lk 17:20-21).
The focus of Jesus’ response tends to be on “is within you.” Before, however, this can be understood, we need to address the issue Jesus raised about ‘observation’ (parateresis, watching closely), which includes the implication his reply involves. “Careful observation” characterized the rigorous practice of Pharisees observing their covenant code of behavior, which, more importantly, reflected the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework operating in their approach to the Scriptures and their eschatological hope—which also reflected their underlying theological anthropology. Jesus implied (as with those in Jn 5:39) that their careful observations through the lens of their perceptual-interpretive framework only focused on the quantitative aspects of the kingdom—which was a process somewhat analogous to the Enlightenment’s scientific method.
Accordingly, the issue Jesus addressed about the kingdom “within you” (en) is less about any measured-temporal sense of the kingdom—that is, “among you collectively,” and thus is present (‘already’, realized eschatology), or “within you,” understood as merely an inward (spiritual) nature pointing to the future (‘not yet’, future eschatology). More significantly, I affirm, Jesus addressed the issue between reductionism of the kingdom to mere quantitative terms as opposed to the qualitative integrity of the whole of the kingdom’s relational significance. This is the major issue of the kingdom in its past, present and future—in Israel’s past, in Jesus’ present, in the whole of God’s thematic action in relational progression to the future—which directly involves how the Scriptures are approached, how God’s kingdom is perceived and responded to.
The kingdom of God cannot be reduced to quantitative aspects, though it certainly involves them in secondary ways that can never be made primary to determine God’s kingdom. The kingdom can only be defined in whole by qualitative terms, which vulnerably involves the whole person (signified by the heart), though the whole of the kingdom is not contained merely in the individual person and spiritually within us. Conjoined with this definition, the kingdom can only be determined in function by qualitative relational terms directly involving the relationships together necessary to be whole, the whole of God’s whole in likeness of the Trinity.
This was the qualitative significance that the whole of the Word embodied to disclose vulnerably the whole of God for covenant relationship together in “the kingdom of God has come to you” (Lk 11:20). Luke’s Gospel narrates Jesus’ salvific discourses and work with the emphasis of the kingdom of God for all peoples. A Jewish bias, particularly in a reductionist hermeneutic of their Scriptures, would reduce the whole of the kingdom and preclude access by all, or at the very least stratify the access for others. Thus, it is important in Luke’s narrative accounts to interrelate Jesus’ discourses about approaching the Scriptures conjointly with understanding the relational significance of the kingdom of God that has come (cf. Lk 10:21).
This interrelated focus necessitates revisiting Jesus’ demonstrative joy with the Spirit in praising the Father for “your gracious will” (eudokia) in “disclosing the whole of God and God’s thematic action to little children,” not to “the wise and the intellectual” (Lk 10:21). Those who represent “little children” are persons vulnerably engaged in qualitative relational involvement with the whole of Jesus—neither distant relationally by engaging a disembodied Word, nor detached relationally by analytically observing the secondary details of the Word and God’s action, as “the wise and learned” were, incorrectly embedded in the Scriptures. The latter approach includes the referentialization of the embodied whole of the Word. The whole of God’s self-disclosure in Jesus involves his relational context and process, in which “little children” relationally respond compatibly for the connection necessary for the relational flow of communication, as Jesus made definitive (Lk 10:22). The referentialization of the Word has been a hermeneutical issue through Israel’s history in search of the eschatological hope (10:23-24), and continues to be a hermeneutical issue today in church and academy.
“The wise and the intellectual” (in Lk 10:21) were directly associated with the “careful observation” in Lk 17:20. This evidenced both their reductionist interpretive framework imposed on the Scriptures (and on God’s self-disclosure in the Word embodied), and their reductionist perceptual framework narrowing down the kingdom of God to quantitative parameters without the qualitative relational significance of the whole accessible to all “little children.” This was earlier summarized in John’s Gospel (emphasizing the big picture) with Jesus’ disarming words in his hermeneutical discourse of his salvific work: “You search the Scriptures but you depend on your own perceptual interpretation to signify your eternal life, your membership in the kingdom” (Jn 5:39).
In Matthew’s portrait of Jesus as the Messiah, Jesus came to fulfill God’s covenant promise and the eschatological hope of Israel as God’s people, not as nation-state. Accordingly, Jesus’ kingdom of heaven had continuity from the OT (Mt 3:1-3; 4:12-17, cf. 25:34). Yet, there was also a clear qualitative distinction about this kingdom (Mt 5:3,10,20; 7:21; 12:48-50; 18:3; 19:14). While the kingdom of heaven was an extension of the old covenant and the fulfillment of its covenant promise, there arrived also directly with Immanuel—the vulnerably present and intimately involved “God with us”—a new and deeper covenant relationship together that he composed in the kingdom of heaven. In relational terms, Jesus fulfilled both the quantitative terms of the old covenant and its qualitative relational significance, which Jesus vulnerably embodied for the direct experience of this covenant relationship together in its new and deeper relational process. And Jesus appeared to further associate this relational significance with his church (ekklesia, gathered body, Mt 16:18-19), which involved building (oikodomeo, to build a house, v.18, whose root is oikos) his household family (oikos and kingdom together in Mt 12:25). Building “with me” is in the trinitarian relational context of family and by the trinitarian relational process of family love to “gather with me” (synago, Mt 12:30, the root for synagogue, the counterpart to ekklesia) the family of God, both signifying and constituting “the kingdom of God has come to you” (12:28).
Therefore, after Jesus disclosed to his disciples “the secrets of the kingdom of heaven” (mysterion, hidden, hard to understand because undivulged, Mt 13:11-51), he made the following definitive for every teacher of the covenant relationship who has been made a functioning disciple (matheteuo, rendered inadequately in NRSV as “trained”) in the kingdom of heaven: as persons belonging to the household family of God, they openly share the qualitative relational significance of the new covenant relationship together as well as the fulfillment of the old (Mt 13:52). This involves the full soteriology of both what Jesus saved from and what he saved to—the conjoint function of his relational work of grace only for new covenant relationship together.
Yet, the mysterion of the kingdom can remain hidden even though they were vulnerably disclosed by Jesus and made directly accessible even to “little children.” This happens for two important reasons, which Jesus identified at the beginning of the above discourse with his disciples (with the parables of the kingdom directed to the crowds, Mt 13:13). First, Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of heaven were disclosed only for covenant relationship together, not for the quantitative aspects and functional implications of his kingly rule. The latter become the focus determined by a reductionist perceptual-interpretive framework, which Jesus identified as an ongoing issue in Israel’s history (vv.13-14). Predisposed by reductionism, what they paid attention to and ignored precluded their understanding (syniemi, denotes putting the pieces together into a whole) and prevented them from perceiving deeply (horao, not merely to see but means to pay attention to a person to recognize their significance, encounter their true nature and to experience them). Furthermore, their whole person had been reduced (signified by “their heart has grown dull”) to function without the critical significance of both qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness, thereby biasing what they paid attention to and ignored; this had a direct relational consequence “to be apart” from the whole of God, to which God’s thematic relational work of grace in Jesus would respond if they opened their heart (v.15).
This points to the second important reason the kingdom remains hidden despite Jesus’ vulnerable disclosure and intimate accessibility. Jesus began this discourse saying “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not” (v.11). This was not a selective bias by Jesus showing preferential treatment to some while denying access to others, which he appeared to embed in a system of inequitable distribution (v.12). This was about relationship and its reciprocity, distinguishing the involvement in the relational epistemic process that Jesus made clear (Lk 10:21; cf. Mk 4:24-25). Jesus was pointing to the terms necessary for the nature of the relational process he was defining, and to the relational outcome or consequence of its ongoing experience or lack thereof. “To know” (ginosko, experience) was not mere referential information, for example, of propositional truths to quantify in a belief (or theological) system. This was experiential truth which “has been given” (didomi in Gk perfect tense, passive voice), hereby illuminating the experiential reality of Jesus’ relational communication of this kingdom knowledge in relational terms “to you” and stressing his ongoing relational process for his disciples to respond back to and be involved with him in for their experience of the truth of new covenant relationship together. This reciprocal relational involvement in his relational process is the nothing-less-and-no-substitute terms necessary for whole knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of heaven—the qualitative relational terms Jesus illuminated, which he affirmed the disciples engaged, however imperfectly, while the others did not (vv.16-17).
These terms for relationship are the terms for adherence that Jesus defined for his disciples (mathetai). These terms for adherence to Jesus are inherent in matheteuo, not only for teachers of the covenant relationship (in his above definitive statement, 13:52) but for all his followers to have qualitative relational significance in the kingdom of God. Matthew’s Gospel takes matheteuo very seriously, given the evangelist’s emphasis on discipleship. Moreover, Matthew is the only Gospel to record a specific imperative in Jesus’ Great Commission, which is “make disciples (matheteusate, imperative of matheteuo) of all nations” (Mt 28:19).
These are the qualitative relational terms necessary for new covenant relationship together with the whole of God and for the experiential reality of God’s kingdom to emerge. Without the function of whole relationship together in Jesus’ relational context and process, there is no experiential truth of the kingdom of God, regardless of whether the kingdom is ‘already’ (present) and/or ‘not yet’ (future).
The ongoing discussion, and pervading difficulty, to define the what and when of the kingdom appears to suffer from a similar hermeneutical issue that kept the kingdom hidden from Jesus’ contemporaries. I submit that the prevailing working definition of the kingdom focused on God’s kingly rule becomes an epistemic problem when approached with a similar perceptual-interpretive framework illustrated by those in the above discourse. A primarily quantitative tendency has difficulty understanding the depth of “God reigns” and the qualitative relational significance involved, and consequently tends to reduce it merely to the function of sovereign (kingly) rule. This narrows down the relational ontology of the whole of God and essentially puts constraints on how God functions in that ontology, notably in the incarnation. For example, if the angel’s words to Mary about the child she will birth (Lk 1:30-33) are interpreted apart from the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ whole person and his relational context and process, Jesus can only be a king who rules. This constrains the whole of Jesus and God’s thematic relational action in a ‘quantitative box’ without any further and deeper significance. This certainly has relational consequences for receiving the whole of Jesus and responding to “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Moreover, the focus on God’s kingly rule reflects a predisposition to see God’s rule only on certain terms, tending toward our terms (e.g. see Jn 6:14-15). This predisposition is seen in Israel’s history. God’s thematic action was epitomized in their redemption from Egypt (Dt 4:32-34). Yet, God’s self-disclosure in this redemptive experience was not about showing God’s power and rule, but about perceiving (ra’ah) the whole of God (“his own presence [paneh, face]”) and God’s ongoing action for relationship together in the covenant of love (4:35-37, cf. 7:8-9). If God’s people only focused on a reduced God, that is, on the quantitative aspects of what God did (power and rule), then their focus would always be essentially about “What have you done for me lately?” and not on the whole of God’s qualitative being (the ontological One) and relational nature (the relational Whole) and relationship together in the covenant of love. This predisposition characterized their wilderness experience and pervaded their eschatological hope.
The tendency to see God’s rule only on such terms is a reductionist consequence from an imbalanced focus on God’s kingly rule. The fact is, God already sovereignly rules; as expressed in the ancient poet’s reflection in Psalm 93, as Creator the Lord already and always reigns—that is a given. God does not have to prove it, though at times does demonstrate it. Even when the disciples asked themselves on the sea of Galilee, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him” (Mk 4:41), his action was not about Jesus proving he reigns, nor a great display of power of the Creator. God simply reigns—a fact which was insufficient to deeply impact those disciples and change their lives in the days ahead with Jesus, which Mark’s Gospel critically portrays of the disciples.
It is also insufficient to make God’s kingly rule the purpose of the kingdom and of Jesus’ salvific work. God’s thematic action since creation is not about ruling, and the purpose of incarnation of the Word (the one and only Son) was not to establish a king to rule. This was a discussion Jesus had with Pilate about being a king and his kingdom, which Jesus qualified by his purpose “to testify to the truth” (Jn 18:36-37). John’s Gospel provides the overarching picture, to which Jesus testified (martyreo, witness as a participant, not mere observer) as of the transcendent and thus of the transcendent God (Jn 3:31-36), intimately making vulnerable the whole of God (exegeomai, Jn 1:18). His truth, accordingly only in relational terms and not referential, was for redemption to be in relationship together as family (Jn 8:31-36). As the Truth to the Father (Jn 14:6), Jesus embodied this experiential truth only for this relationship (Jn 1:14, then 12); at that time of his farewell discourse, the disciples still had difficulty integrally understanding the whole of Jesus because they were predisposed by their lingering quantitative perceptual-interpretive framework (Jn 14:4-9). Even though earlier they had shifted from the quantitative to qualitative kingdom, they had yet to distinguish the whole of who came necessary to fully understand the whole of what has come.
When Jesus initiated the Lord’s supper for the ultimate table fellowship, he illuminated that the “cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Lk 22:20). The disciples had not yet understood the significance of the new covenant for relationship together in the kingdom, since immediately after the supper was their dispute about which of them was the greatest (Lk 22:24-30, cf. 13:29-30). While Jesus exposed their reductionism and constituted their relationships in the relational whole of his kingdom, the disciples evidenced their need to be changed (cf. Mt 18:1-4)—that is, the process of redemptive change in which the old dies so the new rises. Earlier Jesus pointed to the significance of the new with the parable of new wine (Lk 5:33-39). This tends to be used incorrectly to emphasize new forms and practices, but the new is about changed persons experiencing new relationship together (the focus in vv.34-35, discussed in chap. 8) that distinguished the new wine communion together of God’s kingdom (Lk 13:29-30).
The process to the new is what Jesus’ salvific work saved us to: the kingdom of God, or its equivalence in John’s Gospel, eternal life. John’s Gospel replaces “kingdom” language with eternal life, possibly in part to avoid any conflicts such language could create with Gentiles, yet more importantly to provide the further and deeper significance of the kingdom in the relational context and process of the whole of Jesus. The kingdom that had come came embodied in Jesus, the whole of the Word. As he told Nicodemus, the qualitative relational shape of the whole of God’s kingdom was “born from above,” not by human shaping but born new by the Spirit as the new creation in the image of the relational ontology of the whole of God, thereby made whole in new relationship together in likeness of the Trinity—just as Jesus asked the Father in his formative family prayer (Jn 17). On this basis, the kingdom of God indeed signifies more than God’s kingly rule; and Jesus embodied that significance and constituted the kingdom in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love for this new covenant relationship together—functioning beyond the quantitative limits of the old to intimate relationship together in the very likeness of the relational ontology (zoe) of the Trinity.
Therefore, Jesus’ salvific work and the kingdom must be understood in this further and deeper relational context and process. The whole of God and God’s action are only about relationship, relationship together, covenant relationship together in the whole of God’s whole, which certainly then is only on God’s qualitative relational terms. And if God’s terms for relationship are interpreted only as kingly rule, this would reduce the qualitative relational significance of Jesus’ relational work of grace in agape involvement to fulfill God’s thematic relational response to the human condition. Relationship, by the nature of the relational ontology of the Trinity, cannot be decreed, legislated, otherwise imposed, nor can it be unilateral, all of which are assumed in the primacy of kingly rule. In contrast, God’s kingdom is qualitatively defined irreducibly and relationally determined nonnegotiably by the whole relationship of God, and thereby functions in whole relationship together in likeness of the Trinity.
Covenant relationship together necessitates reciprocal relational response and involvement, the function of which needs to be compatible with the whole and holy God from outside the universe. This was the significance of the relational process Jesus both initiated in the incarnation with the strategic shift of God’s thematic action, and made his whole person vulnerable for with the tactical shift of his salvific work. Not only had the kingdom of God come, most significantly the transcendent, immanent, whole and holy God was vulnerably present and intimately involved for relationship together. Accordingly, this necessary reciprocal relational response and involvement are reciprocated only on the basis of the agape involvement of family love experienced first from the whole of God’s relational work of grace in the functional shift, which constitutes both the whole person and those persons together in the relationships necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. There is no other relational context and process involving the Trinity’s thematic action, and only this relational context and process composes what is the kingdom of God that encompasses the whole of God’s whole. That is, the kingdom (‘already’ and ‘not yet’) cannot be separated from the embodied whole of Jesus’ trinitarian relational context and process; the whole of Jesus’ person and actions (in word and deed) illuminated and distinguished the whole relationship of God constituting “the kingdom of God has come to you.”
Until we integrally understand this qualitative relational nature and function of the kingdom, we cannot adequately address the present-future issue of the kingdom; nor can we fully interpret Jesus’ relational words that the kingdom “has come” (ephthasen, Lk 11:20) and “has come near” (engiken, Mk 1:15). After John was put in prison, Jesus began “proclaiming the good news of God… ‘The kingdom of God has come near; respond to the good news’” (Mk 1:14-15). “Proclaim” (kerysso) is also rendered “preach”—conventionally perceived in a role of preaching. We can either disembody Jesus’ relational words about the kingdom to merely referential words (preached), which is the pervasive practice preaching has come to signify involving the referentialization of the Word. Or, we can interpret those words of the kingdom as the embodied whole of the Word in relational language. The former just transmit information about God but the latter communicate the relational messages of God in relationship.
Engiken and ephthasen have an abstract sense (a reduced sense) if what has come near, or has come, involves merely referential words (even if it includes deeds) about the kingdom. Such disembodied words would not likely constitute good news to evoke your response, especially if you expect more than words (even if they speak truth and hope). On the other hand, engiken and ephthasen have a distinguished whole sense when what is the Who has come near, and has come, to embody the very kingdom of God itself. Who, as Subject and not merely Object, becomes good news indeed, whom persons can receive (not merely hear words) and relationally respond back to (“repent and trust in the good news”). Words by themselves are not good news (or bad); embodied words become either the gospel to relationally respond back to, or the threat from “bad” news to relationally react against—both of which are played out in the Gospels’ narratives. With this understanding, then the hermeneutical issue for engiken and ephthasen becomes whether Jesus’ relational context and process embodying the kingdom has relational significance for the present or only the future.
Furthermore, the epistemic problem of the kingdom involves not only disembodying Jesus’ words but also reducing his person merely to his deeds—both signifying the referentialization of the Word. Jesus’ deeds (or his ministry) were certainly quantified in history, and this historical aspect is valid and necessary. George Ladd aligned the two to render ephthasen as a fulfillment of the kingdom of God in history (i.e. in Jesus’ ministry) as well as the kingdom’s full consummation at the end of history (Jesus’ second coming, parousia). This makes the kingdom of God both present and future, which is certainly good news. Yet, this perception emerges from a reduction of Jesus’ person to his deeds, and thereby becomes too quantitative and conceptually fragmentary for the kingdom of God. This is insufficient to understand the significance of Jesus’ words, which was relational language, and his actions, which were salvific as God’s thematic relational action—the qualitative relational function of which constitutes the kingdom of God. Both disembodying Jesus’ words and reducing his person to his deeds create an epistemic problem to integrally understand the qualitative relational significance of the whole of Jesus’ salvific action, and therefore the experiential truth of what Jesus saved us to. What Jesus saved us to is to experience the reality of the kingdom of God’s present relational outcome embodied with Jesus in new relationship together, the relational progression of which comes to completion by the Spirit in the relational conclusion at the eschaton.
The shape of the kingdom of God as the whole of God’s whole cannot emerge from reductionism. Reductionism always counters the relationships of the whole, separating or distancing persons in the relationships to be whole—for example, by stratifying relationships in a system of inequality, which Jesus found operating in the temple and throughout the surrounding context. Revisiting the disciples’ dispute about which of them was greatest, Jesus redefined the significance of ruling in relationship together in his kingdom by composing their relationships in unstratified intimate involvement together (Lk 22:24-30); this both pointed them back to the function of “little children” and the need for redemptive change for the new relationship together in God’s kingdom (Mt 18:1-4), and pointed ahead to relationship together with the veil removed (as Paul distinguished, 2 Cor 3:18; Eph 2:14-22). This was the kingdom that Jesus embodied and distinguished for his followers, which was incompatible with reductionism.
Reductionism reshapes the kingdom of God into ontological simulations, and even distorts its shape with epistemological illusions. Consequently, we need to fully understand Jesus’ relational context and process for the whole of his kingdom to expose the presence and influence of reductionism. The only shape constituting the kingdom of God emerges from the whole of Jesus embodying the whole relationship of God for new relationship together in likeness, thereby fulfilling God’s thematic relational action in response to the human relational condition “to be apart” from the whole of God’s whole.
The kingdom of God had come near even before the beginning of Jesus’ ministry proclaiming the good news; Luke’s Gospel provides its biographical roots. Mary’s song and Zechariah’s song pointed to him in their summation of God’s thematic action of grace fulfilling the covenant promise of salvation (Lk 1:46-55; 67-79). As Simeon received the child Jesus into his arms, he confirmed that God’s salvation and kingdom for all had come near (Lk 2:28-32), which the prophetess Anna also affirmed upon meeting the child (Lk 2:38). Then, at age twelve, Jesus took action to initiate the function for the kingdom of God that had come near (Lk 2:49).
As Jesus began to proclaim the good news for relationship together with the whole of his person and action, the kingdom of God had come nearer. As he functioned in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love, and his salvific work relationally progressed, Jesus increasingly gave shape to the kingdom of God until it had come—wholly embodied for new relationship together. This qualitative relational shape is the experiential truth of the kingdom of God accessible to all for compatible relational response to the good news of the embodied whole and holy, transcendent God vulnerably present and intimately involved for the experiential reality of this covenant relationship together.
Indeed, “The kingdom of God has come to you. Relationally respond to the good news.” And ongoingly “Seek the primacy of his kingdom and the whole of God’s relational righteousness” (Mt 6:33).
There are some matters to clarify about the qualitative relational shape of the kingdom and some summary issues to address about its significance.
The kingdom of God still signifies God’s sovereign rule, though as a dynamic rule without involving a material realm, as well as signifies God’s eschatological rule with the new realm. In the previous salvific discourse, Jesus clearly identified driving out demons with the kingdom of God (Mt 12:28, Lk 11:20). This was certainly about Christ’s authority and kingly rule. Yet, driving out demons, along with his other healing (cf. Lk 7:20-23), was also part of his deeper salvific relational work to sozo, that is, to make whole those apart from the whole. Thus, the function of God’s reign with this action was not in relation to those made whole but God’s reign over Satan in general, and over Satan’s counter-relational work of reductionism in particular. Even though reductionism’s struggle with God’s whole is ongoing, God’s rule prevails—that is a given, which even the demons understood (cf. Mk 1:24, Mt 8:29-31). To give primary focus for the kingdom to God’s reign is to reduce the relational significance of those made whole for relationship together as the kingdom of God (cf. the inclusive table fellowship of those made whole in the kingdom of God, Lk 13:29-30).
When the appointed seventy-two followers returned to Jesus joyfully to report that the demons were subjugated to them in his name, Jesus clearly put his authority and rule into this further and deeper perspective: “I have given you authority to rule (exousia)…over the enemy; nothing will harm (adikeo) you. However, do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk 10:17-20, NIV). Jesus shifted them from the quantitative focus of his kingly rule to the qualitative focus on relationship together, with future relational implications. This was the only purpose of the whole of God’s thematic relational action and the significance of God’s strategic shift. Salvation and the kingdom of God are not about the primacy of God’s rule but about the primacy of belonging to God’s kingdom in whole relationship together in the covenant of love. Adikeo essentially involves violating, and thereby reducing, the whole of covenant relationship together, against which Jesus’ reign over Satan will always prevail (cf. Mt 16:18).
I maintain, therefore, that God’s present dynamic reign is relationship-specific to Satan, to rule ongoingly over him and his counter-relational work of reductionism; as such, God’s rule is not the primary functional focus of the kingdom with those in covenant relationship together. Though by prevailing over Satan’s struggle against God’s whole, God’s reign is certainly relationally significant ongoingly for those in the kingdom (cf. Mt 16:18). Furthermore, God’s present rule continues until God’s eschatological rule will conclude Satan’s ultimate defeat and the new realm (new heaven, new earth, new Jerusalem) for God’s people will commence. This, I uphold, is the significance of God’s reign and its function in the kingdom, both present and future.
With this focus for the kingdom, we can integrally understand its deeper shape, which foremost involves defining Jesus’ person and the whole of God by a deeper significance than merely what they do, namely rule kingly. This helps us understand the direct interrelation between the kingdom and the ontology of the whole of Jesus. Jesus’ whole person constitutes his relational involvement in the incarnation to make whole the human condition in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love; his embodied function signified the relational ontology of the whole of God, the Trinity qua family. Therefore, the kingdom of God that has come is the direct relational outcome (experienced in the relational progression of the present) and relational conclusion (completed in the future) of the whole of Jesus’ salvific relational presence and involvement, nothing less and no substitutes. This means that the qualitative relational significance of the kingdom of God must (dei) by this nature integrally be about being God’s whole and also involve the relationships together necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity. The kingdom, then, in this specific relational context and process can only be on God’s qualitative relational terms, never human terms and shaping, consequently irreducible and nonnegotiable in the new covenant relationship together.
Matthew’s Gospel clearly focused on the kingdom of heaven in continuity with the OT, yet also affirmed its relational process to the new. After Jesus disclosed the significance of the parables of the kingdom to his disciples, only Matthew recorded Jesus’ analogy for them as leaders which made necessary the experiential truth of the new of the kingdom (Mt 13:52). The new of the kingdom, however, has its strongest identity in Luke’s Gospel (and developed in his second volume, Acts), whose concern for the Gentiles was an accessible gospel signifying the kingdom of God for all. While there is no shortage of kingdom language to maintain continuity with the OT, Luke integrated the kingdom with a feast composed integrally by all people groups to ensure the new (Lk 13:29-30). Thus, it is helpful to connect various accounts of table fellowship in Luke to further understand the qualitative relational significance of the kingdom and its process to the new.
We can start with Jesus’ surprising statement to Zacchaeus that he must (dei) by the nature of his salvific work have table fellowship at Zacchaeus’ house, and thus the relational outcome of that experience (Lk 19:5,9-10). Next, Jesus was anointed by a prostitute during table fellowship at a Pharisee’s house to disclose both the agape involvement of his salvific work and the reciprocal relational response by a person made whole (sozo) having received him (Lk 7:36-50). These narrative accounts evidence the table fellowship of the new wine involving changed persons experiencing new relationship together, persons who were not stuck in, constrained by or satisfied with the old but had embraced the new (Lk 5:34-39, cf. table fellowship with Martha and Mary, Lk 10:38-42). Thus, the new wine table fellowship is a function of the new creation, the relational reality of which was constituted by the experiential truth of the blood of the new covenant (with the veil removed) initiating in the present the pivotal table fellowship for this relational outcome ‘already’ (Lk 22:20). And this all has the relational conclusion ‘not yet’ at the ultimate table fellowship of the kingdom of God for all in new covenant relationship together as God’s whole without reductionism (Lk 13:29-30).
Each of the canonical Gospels provides its evangelist’s unique portrait of Jesus and his shaping of the kingdom of God. Yet, none of them alone is definitive of the whole of Jesus or of the kingdom. Taken together, the whole of God in Jesus wholly emerges and the kingdom becomes definitive in the whole of God’s thematic relational action embodied by Jesus for this new relationship together. Integrally understanding this in Jesus is receiving the qualitative presence of the whole of God and the relational involvement of the whole of God as Trinity; and the experiential truth of God’s presence and involvement illuminates that artificial and false distinctions are made about “the kingdom of God has come to you.” These distinctions have no functional significance to God’s intentions in response to the human condition, or to God’s desires for relationship together.
An ongoing issue about the kingdom of God is the tension between ‘already’ and ‘not yet’ (whether present or future), yet this conversation has been about a quantitative tension, not a qualitative matter. This tension involves the temporal focus of chronos: the quantitative perception of time denoting a period measured by the successive passing of moments (or events). Despite various references Jesus made to temporal aspects of the kingdom, he was not focused on chronos (cf. his Olivet discourse on end times, Mt 24:36). Having been asked when the kingdom of God would come, he made definitive that it cannot be determined by a quantitative focus (Lk 17:20). Why? Because by its nature, as he embodied, “the kingdom of God is within (or among) you” (Lk 17:21). That is to say, not that the kingdom is spiritual (in the sense of being only subjective and esoteric), but rather the ontology of the kingdom is qualitative; “the kingdom is” (eimi, verb of existence, also a copula) conjoined “within you (pl)” as qualitative whole persons and “among you” in qualitative relational significance.
The ontology of the kingdom of God is set forth further in Jesus’ statement distinguishing the kingdom as “little children” in relationship together (Lk 18:16). This cannot be measured in reductionist terms like chronos and determined by a quantitative focus, even on the Word. Jesus embodied the kingdom and gave it its qualitative relational shape in kairos (qualitative time, season, characterized by the critical importance and decisive influence of something, see Lk 12:56). Though this certainly happened in the history of chronos, that is secondary to the primacy of the kingdom’s qualitative relational significance in kairos—the experiential truth of which is only for new relationship together with those “little children” who relationally respond back in qualitative compatibility (cf. Lk 10:21, Mt 18:3).
Thus, the experiential reality of relationship together signifies the experiential truth of the kingdom that, I affirm, makes the already-not yet issue rather insignificant and an artificial distinction for the kingdom of God; and such notions serve to diminish the whole of Jesus (who came and “the kingdom of God that has come to you” (what has come).
Moreover, the whole of God’s strategic shift in the mystery of the incarnation constituted God’s dwelling from a quantitative sanctuary (mountain, tabernacle, temple, cf. Jn 4:21) directly to the qualitative sanctuary both “within you” and “among you” as whole persons in the relationships necessary to be whole together with God. This was the purpose Jesus vulnerably disclosed to the Samaritan woman that the whole of God seeks new relationship together with persons only “in spirit and truth” (Jn 4:21-24). It is an artificial distinction to separate the kingdom as God’s kingly rule and realm to the future from the present reality of the vulnerable presence and intimate involvement of the whole of God for new relationship together as God’s family. Paul clearly illuminated this experiential truth with the Spirit (1 Cor 3:16) and distinguished this experiential reality in the church (Eph 2:22).
Likewise, it is a false distinction to separate out any notion of the kingdom in the present from the present reality of God’s life and action within and among God’s people. This fragments God into kingly rule and agape involvement as family, which includes the affectionate expression of phileo. In addition, this reduces the relational ontology of the whole of God and constrains God and God’s action to the quantitative aspects of bios, as opposed to the qualitative significance of zoe. This then shapes the kingdom differently from the qualitative relational “kingdom of God that has come to you”; furthermore, in this same discourse Jesus made clear his position against reductionism, indicating that the kingdom and family were equivalent (Lk 11:17-26).
What Jesus embodied cannot be limited to bios. The life Jesus embodied in whole, and in which he constituted his followers, only has significance in zoe—that is, the qualitative relational life of the whole of God, the zoe of the Trinity, of whom having whole knowledge and understanding ‘already’ composes eternal life (given Jesus’ prayer, Jn 17:3,26). The whole of Jesus is the qualitative relational nature of those together born by the Spirit as the new creation. The whole of Jesus’ action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love is the qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation. Jesus functioned only for relationship together as his family and ongoingly constituted his followers as God’s family, even while on the cross (as discussed in chap. 11). His kingdom cannot be distinguished from his family without fragmenting the whole of God’s whole. This signifies “the kingdom of God that has come” not merely as kingly rule but, more importantly, as the function of new relationship together as family. This new relational function is relationship-specific to the whole of relationships Jesus constitutes his followers both in and for: his family, his family in the present as the church, thus the church as God’s family in which the whole of God ongoingly dwells in family love (Jn 14:23; 17:26; Eph 2:19-22).
Therefore, it is a false distinction to say that the kingdom of God is God’s kingly rule and the church is the fellowship of those who have experienced God’s rule, and to maintain the church is not the kingdom. There is no basis to separate them other than the shaping from reductionism, which involves the human shaping of relationships. The kingdom of God is quite humbly this family of “little children” vulnerably enacted to us in love by the whole of Jesus, through whom we become God’s very own family in new covenant relationship together—however incomplete in the present, nevertheless in the relational progression with the Son by the Spirit to the Father for the complete whole of God’s whole in ultimate communion together. This is the new creation, which in whole ontology and function is the church as family today and the presence of God’s kingdom in the world—however imperfect, yet in the reciprocal relational process with the whole of God for redemptive change to perfection.
Understandably, a purpose to separate out the kingdom from the church is to not associate it with imperfection. While this may have human purpose, it has no basis for significance to the whole and holy God. The original creation was made whole in the image and likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity, yet created with human will and thus the volition “to be apart” from the whole of relationships together—consequently, the human condition. God’s relational grace responded to restore the whole of relationship together. In the new creation, human volition remains necessary by the reciprocal nature of relationships together as family by family love, which cannot be decreed, legislated, or otherwise imposed, as can be assumed for kingly rule. Thus, the choice to be whole or “to be apart” is present and will ongoingly remain in tension with reductionism, notably susceptible to its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions in the life and practice of the church.
At the same time, the new creation has been redeemed to relationally belong to the whole of God’s family, therefore never to be orphaned but in ongoing reciprocal intimate relational involvement without the veil with the Spirit, who will complete the relational process to the perfection of the whole as family in new relationship together with the whole and holy God. In other words, even in the present ontology and function the new creation goes qualitatively well beyond original creation, human volition notwithstanding; and God’s relational grace in the vulnerable involvement of reciprocal relationship indeed is sufficient basis to ongoingly meet its relational needs. It is this qualitative relational shape and significance of the new creation (and the kingdom of God) which will always meet the need in the human condition for wholeness, and thereby will emerge as the light in whatever situation and circumstance “to be apart” it may find itself or may encounter in the world. This is the relational outcome ‘already’ that Jesus illuminates and distinguishes in his defining prayer for his whole family, in likeness of the Trinity (Jn 17).
This challenges our theological and functional assumptions. The theological implication of the above discussion is that our knowledge and understanding of the kingdom of God must by nature cohere with the whole of Jesus and his salvific action in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love in order for our knowledge and understanding to be whole. The functional implication is that without this coherence, we lack the experiential truth of the kingdom of God on which to base in relational terms (not referential) our integral belonging to God’s whole in the innermost (not merely as a belief), or even the eschatological hope of belonging. This lack tends to leave Christians in the emotional condition (often unknowingly) of, and renders their relational condition to, relational orphans, of which many Christians experience the relational distance, especially as members of churches.
As we transition from the kingdom to the church, it may appear premature to identify the church in the Gospels and establish ecclesiology in the narrative life of Jesus. Yet, the church in wholeness is rooted in and emerges from only complete Christology. An incomplete Christology is the basis for ecclesiologies shaping the church other than the whole of God’s whole.
When Jesus revealed “I will build my church,” the Greek term he used for church was ekklesia (Mt 16:18). The term meant the assembly or gathering of those who were called out (ekkletoi). Ekklesia also has roots in the OT; it is the term that the Septuagint (Greek translation of the OT) uses for Israel as the covenant community (qahal, Dt 9:10)—suggesting Matthew’s Jewish emphasis as the apparent reason why only this Gospel records Jesus’ statement about the church. This embeds the Christian church in the context of God’s dealings with his chosen people and their covenantal relationship (Ex 19:5, Dt 7:6, Heb 8:10, 1 Pet 2:9-10). The NT extends this salvation history as the Father pursues a people for himself in his eschatological plan (Lk 1:17). This was Jesus’ salvific relational action in complete Christology and full soteriology to build his church.
The term ekklesia itself appears to have only limited descriptive value for what his church is (its ontology) and does (its function). As far as function is concerned, ekklesia is a static term which is not useful to define the church (notably the local church). We need a more dynamic understanding for the church’s ontology and function than merely a gathering. The functional significance of his church emerges when we focus on the process Jesus implied in his statement above, and that he embodied in his life and practice—and made further evident in post-ascension discourse with various churches (discussed later in this chap.).
In Jesus’ disclosure “I will build my church,” the term for build is oikodomeo. This term denotes building a house, derived from its root oikos meaning house, home, family, that is, a family living in a house. These terms were conjoined later with their significant cognates illuminated by Paul: oikeios, belonging to a certain family (Eph 2:19); oikodome, building (Eph 2:21); oikonomos, a person who manages a family (1 Cor 4:1). The function of these relational terms points to the relational process of the new creation family of God and building his family together. This provides us with the vital relational context of his church and the dynamic relational process for the function of his church, both of which Jesus vulnerably embodied progressively in his trinitarian context of family by his trinitarian relational process of family love. On this basis, the church as God’s family was distinguished by Jesus even before the cross, and was fully constituted by his salvific work during the week of equalization to the cross—the relational work that the Spirit came soon afterward to mature for completion, and that Paul, not Peter, would later distinguish for the church’s whole ontology and function. Therefore, ecclesiology is necessarily integrated within a complete Christology to establish the experiential reality of a full soteriology. Any ecclesiology that is not functionally integrated within complete Christology is insufficient and lacks wholeness. This points ahead to Paul’s irreplaceable pleroma theology for the church to be whole.
It may be argued that church today bears little resemblance to the church which emerged in the first century. The validity or invalidity of this discussion also depends on our perceptions and understanding of the church being built in Jesus’ disclosure.
When Jesus cleansed the temple, this was for “my house” (oikos) to be a context for communion (notably communication through prayer) together with God “for all peoples” (Mk 11:17). When the curtain was torn to reconstitute the temple, this removed the relational veil between God and his people for a new context and process of relationship together. This context of God’s intimate dwelling shifted to the new relational context for God’s people to have communion directly in relationship together Face to face without the veil. Relationship together in this new context, however, was only on God’s qualitative relational terms—irreducible to human shaping and nonnegotiable to human terms—just as Jesus initially disclosed to the Samaritan woman at the well about God’s strategic shift. God’s terms (“Listen to my Son”) involved following Jesus in relational progression to his Father to belong to his new family, which he redefined as functionally distinguished from his biological family (Mt 12:49-50). It was in his trinitarian relational context of family by his trinitarian relational process of family love that Jesus composed his followers in transformed relationship together as family in the new relational order with no veil. Just as he relationally established Mary and John with each other, becoming family together while he was on the cross, it was this gathering (ekklesia) of his followers being “built” together in relationship who formed his church.
The church, which emerged with Jesus, is the direct relational outcome of the relational dynamic involved in establishing the new relational order for the human relational condition; they are inseparable. The formation of his church is vitally integrated with Jesus’ vulnerable relational work to equalize persons from ontological and identity deficit and intimately involve those persons in the relationship together necessary for the new relational order of wholeness—signified by the new wine communion. If church formation is separated from this relational process, then church is no longer about his family and becomes subject to human shaping of relationship together. His church as family is a function only of whole relationship together. Yet this relationship has significance only as a function of transformed relationships—that is, redeemed and reconciled relationships together with the veil removed, which Paul illuminated and distinguished for the church. By its nature, these are the relationships together necessary to be whole in likeness of the Trinity, just as Jesus prayed to the Father. Therefore, church formation must (dei, not opheilo) involve equalizing persons, whose hearts then open to each other and come together in the relationships as family in the new relational order—coming together to be and live whole among themselves, and in integral function to live and make whole in the world.
This is what we need to perceive and understand about his church, and thereby how we need to function to be his church in likeness. Anything less in church formation is insufficient to be whole, the whole of God’s whole on God’s terms, and becomes merely a substitute from reductionism shaping a different ontology and function of the church. As will be discussed shortly, the influence of reductionism is addressed in Jesus’ post-ascension discourse to help us further perceive and more deeply understand the purpose and function of his church and for ecclesiology to be whole. The transition of the kingdom distinguished integrally in the church’s ontology and function was decisively illuminated, made definitive and qualitatively and relationally distinguished by Paul with his embodying the theology and hermeneutic of the whole gospel in the ecclesiology of the whole of God’s whole.
Before we move into Paul’s ecclesiology, it will be helpful to further understand the transition that Paul himself underwent in his life and thought. This understanding emerges in response to the following question.
As a Jew and a Christian, what was Paul’s understanding of God’s people?
Paul’s understanding is directly tied to his theological cognition of who, what and how God is, and his theological assumptions of human ontology and function.
On the one hand, God’s people—whether Jews or Christians—were the same for Paul, though, on the other, there was a qualitative and functional difference that needed to be understood and made whole. A Jew was not unclear about the identity of ‘who God is’. Most Jews in ancient Israel, however, typically had difficulty with the ontology of ‘what God is’ and often had problems with the nature of ‘how God is’. These ontological and functional issues certainly influenced and shaped, if not constructed, knowledge and understanding not only of God but also of God’s people. Whether God’s people were the same for Paul or had a difference depended on his theological cognition of God’s ontology and function and his directly related theological anthropology, both contingent on where Paul was in his unfolding journey.
Prior to the Damascus road Paul claimed his identity with God’s people through membership in Israel as a nation-state. As a nation-state in Paul’s day, Israel was dominated by the Roman state and threatened by the Way in its identity as God’s people. Jewish identity was based on the identity of their God, rooted in the monotheism of the Shema. The identity of ‘who God is’ may have been compromised in Israel’s history but never redefined. Only the one God prevailed and would save them from their plight. The issue, however, was not the identity of who the Deliverer is but the insufficiency of both the ontology of the one God and the nature of this God as well as the full significance of God’s salvation. Their God, for example, was also the holy God, yet the full significance of God being uncommon was not understood in depth (cf. Eze 22:26). This lack equally signified and constituted a reduced ontology and function from outer in by human terms and shaping, which redefined the qualitative being and renegotiated the relational nature of God and of the ontology and function of God’s people in likeness (cf. Moses’ lens, Ex 33:15-16). In the process, Israel’s identity as God’s people shifted to nation-state in a truncated soteriology and away from the covenant people of God being saved to whole relationship together as God’s family. Paul had to account for this as a Jew and be ongoingly accountable as a Christian.
Paul received the needed epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction to understand the inner-out significance of God’s people (Rom 2:28-29). This further and deeper significance was based on the experiential truth of his whole knowledge and understanding (synesis) of the whole of who, what and how God is, that is, Paul’s pleroma theology as relationally revealed to him face to face in the embodied face of Christ (2 Cor 4:6). His integral understanding of the whole of God and God’s relational whole involved his own ontology and function made whole. Having been restored to God’s relational context and reconciled in God’s relational process, as a Jew now from inner out, Paul turned from identity in a nation-state back to the covenant relationship of God’s people; and as a Christian, he experienced the full significance of the relational belonging and ontological identity of God’s people (cf. 2 Cor 6:16; Ti 2:14).
Turning away from nation-state, Paul’s discourse partially turned to “the kingdom of God” (e.g. Acts 19:8; 20:25; 28:23,31). This focus for some of God’s people, however, did not clearly distinguish “the kingdom of God” from nation-state as long as it was still perceived with a quantitative lens from outer in. Paul’s discourse about the kingdom was an extension of Jesus’ kingdom discourse, who made definitive its qualitative ontology from inner out (Lk 17:20-21) and relational function (Lk 11:20; 18:16-17). Paul extended this qualitative ontology and relational function of the kingdom as God’s people (cf. Rom 14:17; 1 Cor 4:20), and he also further distinguished the kingdom and deepened the understanding of God’s people in his pleroma theology (Col 1:12-13; Eph 1:4-14, 22-23).
In the whole of Paul’s theology, and in the relational progression with Christ (the pleroma of God) and the Spirit (Christ’s relational replacement), God’s people became the relational outcome ‘already’ that emerged in the church (the pleroma of Christ). Yet, for Paul the pleroma of Christ (Eph 1:23) is not the institution of the church but the embodying of the church in the qualitative ontology from inner out and the relational function of agape involvement in the whole relationship together of God’s new creation family—integrally in the image of the one God’s qualitative ontology (the ontological One) and in the likeness of the whole of God’s relational function (the relational Whole). Nothing less and no substitutes of who, what and how God is and God’s people are could signify and can constitute their whole ontology and function. More important than as a Jew and a Christian, Paul’s experiential truth as the adopted son in the whole and holy God’s family was ‘who he is’ and ‘whose he is’, in whole relationship together, both intimate and equalized, with his sisters and brothers.
The church, that is, the pleroma of Christ, is God’s relational context for the convergence of the theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest (Eph 1:22-23), and embodies God’s relational context and process for relationally extending these theological-functional dynamics to wholeness (Eph 2:22; 4:12-13). Pleroma (fullness, completion) is the wholeness that reflects the development not only in Paul’s thought and theology (e.g. Col 1:19) but also in the whole of Paul’s person (e.g. Col 2:10; 3:15; Eph 3:19; cf. Phil 2:1-2; 3:12, 15-16). The experiential truth of Paul’s development—the whole of Jesus into the relational Paul to compose the theological Paul—is questioned or obscured by disputes over the authorship of some of these letters, notably Ephesians.
Ephesians emerges in the Pauline corpus without the usual context—no personal greetings and situations noted, with the Ephesian title added later—to understand Paul’s purpose, or that he even wrote this text. Yet I conclude for Paul’s authorship despite any style and language differences from his undisputed letters, and that Ephesians closely followed his Colossian and Philemon letters. My conclusion of the insufficiency of these disputed details to deny Paul’s authorship is based on the depth of its content, which emerges to be an even further development of Paul’s thought and theology than Colossians presents. That is, this development is his integrated content based on Paul’s claim to have received further revelation (Eph 3:3-4), while in ongoing relationship with Jesus Christ (Gal 1:11-12; Acts 26:16) and in reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit (1 Cor 2:10, 12-13). Paul’s depth of development reflected in Ephesians is, to be specific, about his theological forest, which integrated his previous theological dynamics (notably in Romans); and then he extended these dynamics in the ecclesiology necessary for the relational function of the embodied pleroma of Christ, the church reconciled in wholeness ‘already’ by the pleroma of God, just as Paul introduced earlier and was developing about God’s new creation family (2 Cor 5:17-19; Gal 3:26-28; 6:15-16; Col 1:19-22; 3:10-11,15). It is highly unlikely that any author other than Paul could have formulated this theological integration, and the existence of a Pauline school has not been established to attribute this to one of his students. This is the outcome of Paul’s synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) of the church that was developing from its earlier beginning in 1 Corinthians (e.g. 10:17-18, 12:13, 27). Paul’s readers also need to syniemi further than the historical Paul in human contextualization to account for the whole of Paul’s person (in the relational Paul) and the whole in his theology (with the theological Paul).
Paul’s summary of his theological forest (Eph 1:3-14; cf. Col 1:15-22) illuminates his synesis of God’s thematic relational action in response to the human condition—the condition that, as noted earlier, neuroscience defines also as the inherent human relational need and problem. Paul’s synesis is the whole understanding of God’s response that becomes the integrating process, framework and theme for the various theological trees (the complex dynamics) in his previous letters (particularly in Romans) that makes definitive their theological forest. It is within Paul’s theological forest that the ecclesiology necessary to be whole, God’s relational whole only on God’s terms, is relationally embodied and wholly emerges in Ephesians. Without his ecclesiology in wholeness, Paul’s oikonomia (family relational responsibility) to pleroo (complete, make whole) the relational word of God would not have been fulfilled (Col 1:25).
In Ephesians, Paul makes definitive the ecclesiology that by the nature of its roots emerged from antecedents prior to Paul’s letters and even predating his studies in Judaism. These antecedents were necessarily integrated into his ecclesiology. Building on our discussion of Jesus above, the first of these antecedents was rooted in OT Israel as the gathering of God’s people (qahal, Dt 9:10). The Septuagint (the OT Gk translation familiar to Paul, a Roman-citizen Jew) uses ekklesia for Israel as the covenant community. This embeds the NT ekklesia (“church,” e.g. Eph 1:22; Col 1:18) in the context of God’s ongoing relational action with his chosen people and their covenant relationship together (Ex 19:5; Dt 7:6-8; Eze 11:19-20). Beyond being a mere historical root and religious heritage, this antecedent is important for understanding the whole of God’s thematic relational involvement and the theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest enacted only for whole relationship together as God’s family (Eph 1:4-5,14).
The term ekklesia itself, though used by Paul in his letters, has only limited descriptive value for the ontology and function of the church. Since ekklesia is a static term, it is neither sufficiently significant nor necessarily useful to define the church in whole. The more dynamic understanding for the church’s ontology and function than merely a gathering (even as ekkletoi) necessarily came from the second antecedent integrated into Paul’s ecclesiology: the whole of Jesus, the complete Christology spawning Paul’s whole ecclesiology.
The theological and functional significance of Jesus’ church emerged when the focus was given to the process Jesus implied in his statement to build his church, which directly involves what he relationally embodied face to face in his life and practice, and which he made further evident in his post-ascension involvement with various churches (Rev 2-3). From Paul’s direct relational involvement with Jesus, he understood the experiential truth that Jesus’ relational involvement and relational work went further and deeper than a gathering, regardless of a gathering’s doctrinal and moral purity, its extensive church activity and its esteemed reputation (as demonstrated by churches in Ephesus and Sardis, Rev 2:2-4; 3:1-2). The relational language used by Jesus with the relational word oikodomeo certainly involved a family living in a house, not merely a gathering under the same roof.
Paul later integrated Jesus’ relational word and its roots with their significant cognates for the church’s ontology and function, with oikos as the basis for the church as God’s household (1 Tim 3:15): oikeios, belonging specifically to God’s family (Eph 2:19); oikodome, building God’s family (Eph 2:21; 4:12); synoikodomeo, being built together as God’s family (syn and oikodomeo, Eph 2:22); oikonomos, led by persons who manage God’s family (1 Cor 4:1); and oikonomia, for which Paul was given the specific relational responsibility to administrate the relational outcome ‘already’ of God’s family (Eph 3:2; Col 1:25), that which is in relational progression on an eschatological trajectory to its relational conclusion ‘not yet’ (Eph 1:10).
The relational function of these terms (relational not referential) points to the definitive relational process of the new kinship family of God that Jesus constituted in the incarnation. That is to say, the specific relational connections Jesus made throughout the incarnation to build his family together spawned the embryonic church from which the whole ontology and function of the church emerged. Jesus provided Paul, partly through the Jesus tradition and mostly by direct relationship together along with the Spirit, with the necessary relational context for the relational embodying of his church and the imperative relational process for the relational function of his church. This is the irreducible relational context and nonnegotiable relational process that the whole of Jesus vulnerably embodied progressively in the whole of God’s relational context of family by his whole relational process of family love. Thus, the church as God’s family was made definitive by Jesus even before the cross, and was fully constituted by his salvific relational work; and this relational outcome is what the Spirit, as his relational replacement, will bring to its relational conclusion—and Paul, not Peter, would engage the oikonomia to provide the ecclesiology necessary for the whole of God’s family.
Therefore, Paul’s ecclesiology is rooted in what germinated with the whole of Jesus’ person and relational involvement, who relationally embodied the pleroma of God in pleroma Christology for pleroma soteriology. This pleroma theological-functional dynamic was first Paul’s experiential truth and then was the key antecedent into which Paul’s ecclesiology is integrated for the church to be the pleroma of Christ. Any ecclesiology not rooted and integrated in pleroma Christology is insufficient to make functional the relational outcome of pleroma soteriology (what Christ saves to), and fundamentally lacks wholeness. Such an ecclesiology is shaped by human terms rooted in human contextualization, which at best is only a gathering—an ontological simulation and epistemological illusion of the ekklesia Jesus builds. While a mere gathering may have some functional significance for those gathered, it does not have relational significance to the pleroma of God and to the inherent human need of those gathered (cf. Jn 14:9; Mt 15:8-9)—thereby reinforcing and sustaining the human relational condition rather than making it whole.
The doctrine of the church and church function is either whole or some reduction. This doctrine either defines the extent of what emerges in church life and practice, or limits it. Christ’s ekklesia rises up with him to emerge above and beyond a gathering in all of its shapes. The whole ecclesiology that emerges for Paul is not a mere doctrinal truth of this new ekklesia but the experiential truth entirely of whole relationship together in God’s whole family on God’s qualitative relational terms. What unfolds in Paul’s ecclesiology?
In going beyond a doctrinal statement, Paul’s ecclesiology does not become a metaphor, an organizational structure or programmatic system for church life and function. Rather, his ecclesiology is the theological-functional dynamic signifying the embodying of the whole ontology and function of the church in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God. On this relational basis and ongoing relational base, whole ecclesiology signifies the embodying of God’s new creation family in the functional significance of its relational outcome ‘already’ in ongoing relational progression with the Spirit to its relational conclusion ‘not yet’. This ecclesiology emerges only from the embodied pleroma of God, who constitutes the embodying of the pleroma of Christ with the Spirit. For Paul, ecclesiology is rooted in this whole and is the theological dynamic of wholeness, nothing less and no substitutes. Paul’s ecclesiology then is always synonymous with pleroma ecclesiology. Therefore, the ecclesiology of this new creation is irreducible in the church’s ontology, and its shared new covenant is nonnegotiable in the church’s function. Anything less and any substitutes in the church are a renegotiated ecclesiology shaped by human terms from human contextualization.
The experiential truth of being whole and its experiential reality of function in whole relationship together are both the theological purpose and functional concern of Paul’s ecclesiology. When he made the relational imperative in his Colossians letter to “let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body” (Col 3:15), his concern for the church was to be whole and to function in the wholeness of relationship together. For this purpose of church ontology and function, he wanted this letter to be read also in the church at Laodicea (Col 4:16). One person in particular whom Paul most likely targeted for this relational imperative of wholeness was Philemon, though whether he resided in Colosse or Laodicea is uncertain. Philemon was the slave-owner of Onesimus (4:9), who ran away from Philemon and with whom Paul shared family love and who now belonged to Christ as a son in God’s family (4:9; Phlm 16). We will discuss the specific implications of their relationship in the next chapter, but for now it is important to identify his personal letter to Philemon as a key letter for the relational function of the church to be whole in its relationships together as God’s new creation family. The Philemon letter is a specific relational context in which wholeness in ecclesiology is made functional.
Though written before Ephesians and closely aligned with Colossians, Philemon reflects what was already developing in Paul’s thought for ecclesiology to be whole. Following the course of Colossians’ theological dialogue (discourse in relational context) on God’s new creation family (Col 3:10-11) and relational imperative of wholeness (3:15), Philemon emerges prior to Ephesians to become a functional bridge to Paul’s thought and theology in Ephesians. In this letter vital to the Pauline corpus—both of whose understanding are diminished without their integrated development—Paul clearly illuminates the theological basis specifically for church-leader Philemon’s relational function and generally for the whole ontology and function of the church in the ecclesiology of the whole, Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology.
In spite of its basic need in those who belong to Christ, the experiential truth of a whole ecclesiology is often reduced to, not distinguished from, or even indeed, never realized as other than a doctrinal or propositional truth. While the objective truth is necessary, doctrinal and propositional truths are not sufficient in themselves to constitute whole ecclesiology. Paul’s ecclesiology is not compatible with such theological reductionism, nor is this reductionism an option capable of replacing experiential truth. This reductionism predictably happens apart from the Spirit, as Paul has functionally identified throughout his previous letters (1 Thes 5:19; 1 Cor 12:13; 2 Cor 3:17-18; Gal 5:16,25; Rom 8:9,14,16; Phil 2:1). Conjointly in his dialogue with churches about the church, Paul challenges the assumptions of ecclesiology and its related theological anthropology held by his readers (both past and present).
The functional basis for Paul’s ecclesiology is clearly identified as the Spirit’s presence and involvement. In Ephesians, Paul integrates and relationally extends the Spirit’s relational work. By reciprocal involvement with the Spirit, the Spirit baptizes and raises up those who share in (koinonia) Christ’s body and blood for the redemptive change necessary to embody the new creation. The new creation is not a theological concept with only theoretical significance; rather, this new creation is the experiential truth of the relational outcome that emerges only from relational participation in Christ’s death and resurrection together with the Spirit for the death of reduced human ontology and function and the raising of whole ontology and function (Eph 2:1-10; 4:24; Rom 8:6,11). This participation relationally extends to the Father to involve the whole of God in whole relationship together in order, theologically and functionally together, to embody God’s new creation family (2:18-22). The theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest (1:3-14), which are involved in this process of redemptive reconciliation, by necessity transform human persons from being defined and determined by reductionism to be defined and determined by whole ontology and function created in the image and likeness of God—that is, that to which the Spirit raises those in Christ (2 Cor 3:18; Col 3:10). This new creation of wholeness involves conjointly and inseparably the whole person and whole persons together to embody the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family—all of whom and which are constituted together by the relational involvement of the Spirit. The collective ontology and function of God’s family define and determine its relationships together on the basis of this wholeness. These new and whole relationships together signify the transformed relationships between transformed persons which are necessary to be God’s whole family, the pleroma of Christ, therefore which are also irreducible for church ontology and nonnegotiable for church function.
The reciprocal relational involvement by and with the Spirit is indispensable to this transformation process to wholeness and whole relationship together, and the person of the Spirit is inseparable from the embodying of the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family. On this determining basis, Paul prays decisively for and makes relationally imperative the church’s deeper relational involvement both with the Spirit and with each other together (Eph 1:17-20; 3:16-21; 4:3-6; 5:18b-21). He also identified unmistakably the relational consequence for the Spirit when the church’s relationships together function in reductionism (the context of 4:30). In addition, Paul implies that the relational consequence for church ontology and function is to be reduced to persons as epistemic orphans without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are (contrary to Paul’s prayers and Jesus’ promise, Jn 15:26; 16:13-15); and thus the deeper relational consequence for the church is to be reduced to a gathering of what are relational orphans from inner out despite bearing the family titles from outer in (contrary to Jesus’ claim, Jn 14:18). That is, in function such a gathering has no relational significance both to the whole of God (in Jesus by the Spirit with the Father) and to those gathered, leaving them essentially as orphans (cf. Jn 14:1,27; 16:33).
Jesus’ assurance to “not leave you orphaned” is contingent on the reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit. The Spirit’s relational presence and work is certainly assumed by Jesus as his relational replacement and is further illuminated by Paul. The wholeness of relationship together as family promised by Jesus (Jn 14:18-20,23,27) and constituted by the Spirit (1 Cor 12:13; Rom 8:6) is the whole relationships together basic to Paul’s ecclesiology and the wholeness he builds by making it the relational imperative for the church (Col 3:15; Gal 5:16,25; 6:16). Yet, as Jesus does, Paul also illuminates the reciprocal relational nature of the Spirit’s involvement, which includes exposing the lack or absence of the church’s reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit. In Paul’s ecclesiology, the relational consequence of function apart from the Spirit is to be rendered orphans, both relationally and epistemologically (cf. Rom 8:12-16).. ‘Relational orphan’ is a functional condition lacking the experiential truth and reality of relationally belonging to God’s family, even while claiming its propositional truth or professing its doctrinal truth. ‘Epistemic orphan’ is a condition of cognitive and existential homelessness, signifying distance, detachment or separation in God’s family, which leaves God’s children in ambiguity, confusion or even deeper conflict about who they are and whose they are. Apart from relational involvement with the Spirit, how church members address this inner longing for relational connection or handle the fragmentation of their beliefs/faith directly involves reductionism and substitutes of ontological simulation and epistemological illusion signifying renegotiated ecclesiology. Further discussion of this reductionist dynamic will be helpful for fully understanding the whole in Paul’s ecclesiology.
There is a counter-dynamic at work—“beyond what is written”—underlying the condition of epistemic orphans that interacts with the condition of relational orphans in church contexts where distance, detachment or separation exists in their relationships together. This counter-dynamic overlaps in function with those living apart from God’s created design and purpose for life in whole relationships together (cf. Gen 2:18), that is, the relational consequence that emerged in the primordial garden that involved both relational and epistemic issues (Gen 3:1-13). The loss of whole relationship together became the prevailing condition for human ontology and function, thereby embedding and enslaving human life in the reality of relationships needing to be whole—the inherent human relational need and problem underlying the human shaping of relationships. Whether it is the general loss of whole relationship together in humanity’s family or the lack of whole relationship together in the church as God’s family, the consequential condition of relational orphans interacts with the condition of epistemic orphans to create the basis for either human shaping, construction and even reification of alternatives for the inherent human need, which includes alternative forms of church life and practice. Or this interaction creates the basis for acknowledging the inadequacy of human effort and turning to the constituting source of whole relationship together. This response-dynamic is critical for the basis of Paul’s ecclesiology, while the counter-dynamic becomes the basis for renegotiated ecclesiology. How does this response-dynamic work to determine ecclesiology?
It will be helpful to use the church at Corinth as a working example, since Paul’s readers are given an overview of this dynamic in 1 Corinthians. Paul addressed this gathering of fragmented relationships with the epistemological clarification (e.g. 1 Cor 8:1-3) and with the hermeneutic correction of wholeness and the whole relationships together to be God’s whole family (e.g. 3:21-22; 10:17; 12:13)—similar to the clarification and correction he experienced from tamiym. His focus for their clarification and correction was centered on their learning from his personal example the meaning of “Nothing beyond what is written” (4:6). Assuming Paul is referring to more than his earlier quotes from Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job and the Psalms (1:19,31; 2:9,16; 3:19-20), Paul focuses on the whole OT canon existing during his time. For Paul, however, what is written goes beyond texts and is deeper than mere words, that is, texts and words as the same narrow lens of the referentialization of the Word. The canon Paul focused on are the words of God and thus the relational words from God communicated to his people. God’s communicative action is the response-dynamic in question that Paul raises, whose initiating relational involvement Paul further illuminated in the next verse with the rhetorical question “What do you have that you did not receive?” (4:7), and later reinforces with “did the word of God originate with you?” (14:36). Paul focuses his readers on this relational dynamic. He is not raising a propositional truth for their epistemological clarification, nor is he teaching them a doctrinal truth for their hermeneutic correction. Rather his purpose is to illuminate the experiential truth involved in this relational response-dynamic initiated by God’s communicative action. That is, Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction made definitive that it is the experiential truth of what is written that is primary; and this experiential truth is not found in the text alone (i.e. merely as a text) and is not located in mere words, both of which are disconnected from their relational source by the counter-dynamic. Texts and words apart from their relational dynamic are reductionism that has relational consequences characteristic of reductionism’s counter-relational work (cf. Jesus’ critique, Jn 5:39-40).
Paul’s clarification and correction illuminate that what is written are relational words only of God’s communication, which by its nature involves a dynamic process of relational interaction: the reciprocal response-dynamic. The reciprocal nature of this relational interaction necessitates involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit to know and understand what the author-God is communicating. An epistemic process with words/texts by themselves, even exegetic words about God, become disembodied, relationally separated from their author, and narrowed down to referential information about God. Consequently, any results at best can be no more than mere words known only as exegesis for propositional truth just about God, and simply texts understood only as a conventional biblical theology for doctrinal truth just about God, each without any relational significance of God and limited to reductionist functional significance only for reader-user. Such results or less signify the following consequence: when ‘what is written’ is reduced to words without relational significance of God and to reader, as Israel often experienced with Torah (cf. Paul’s assessment, Rom 11:7-8; 2 Cor 3:15), the relational consequence is the condition of epistemic orphans, who knowingly or unknowingly are without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are. This condition directly involves and affects human ontology and function, and is consequential for determining their further reduction in relationships together.
Having this whole knowledge and understanding is nothing less than the experiential truth of what is written. This experiential truth is entirely the relational outcome of direct involvement in the relational epistemic process with God by the reciprocal involvement of the Spirit—which is in contrast to engaging a conventional epistemic process revolved around mere human effort, even at exegesis and integrating what is written in a biblical theology (as Paul contrasts, 1 Cor 2:13). Apart from this relational epistemic process with the Spirit, epistemic orphans also become relational orphans. The interaction of these two conditions creates the basis either for disillusionment and even despair, or for dissatisfaction and even desperation, which further creates the basis for human shaping of what is written (e.g. reader-response determination). Consequently, such persons go beyond those words having “lost” their relational significance, in order to find alternatives for relational significance to fulfill their inherent human relational need—whether they are aware of their relational condition or not. Moreover, this orphan-interaction creates the further basis for constructing substitutes whose ontological simulation and epistemological illusion often get reified as the source of fulfillment for the human need and resolution for the human problem. This reification, for example, has happened in mysticism and spirituality practices (cf. Paul’s polemic in 1 Cor 14:1-33). Such human construction and reification are what Paul confronts in his rhetorical question “did the word of God originate with you?” (14:36).
The response-dynamic of God’s communicative act in what is written and the relational consequence of being apart from it are the issues which Paul raises to challenge the ontology and function of his readers. For Paul, however, the most significant consequence of reducing what is written and going beyond it is the emergence of a renegotiated ecclesiology. Epistemic-relational orphans renegotiate the ontology and function of the church as God’s family in the absence of the experiential truth of God’s communicative relational action and involvement (e.g. 1 Cor 11:17-21, 27-30), renegotiating ecclesiology in contrast and conflict with pleroma ecclesiology (10:17; 12:13).
It is also insufficient for Paul’s readers merely to acknowledge what is written as God’s communicative act. Paul assumes that affirmation involves the reciprocal relational response necessary for its experiential truth. Without the experiential truth of God’s communicative action, readers are still left functionally in the condition of orphans, epistemic and/or relational orphans. The only recourse is to turn to the source of the word for the experiential truth of its Subject. This critical process of experiential truth necessary to change from orphans to family starts with the reader’s interpretive lens (phroneo) and what is perceived of what is written in the word of God. The hermeneutic by which the reader engages the word/text is determinative of what emerges from this epistemic process. Just as Jesus critically distinguished the hermeneutic of “a child” from the hermeneutic of “the wise and learned” (Lk 10:21), the epistemic results are in contrast, if not in conflict.
A limited epistemic process of human effort from a quantitative lens dependent on outer-in rationalized interpretation alone invariably separates the object of the text from its Subject’s relational context and process. This reduces the ontology of the object-God by fragmenting the whole Object into its components (e.g. laws, promises, teachings, example, etc.) without whole knowledge and understanding of the object-God as communicator-Subject disclosing the whole of God for relationship together. The epistemic result is without the experiential truth of the object-subject God of what is written. This is the unequivocal relational consequence because engaging the Object of the text also as Subject is a function only of relationship.
In contrast, the hermeneutic of “a child” vulnerably engages in a relational epistemic process, not to be confused with subjectivism or fideism. This hermeneutic certainly does not eliminate reason but puts rational interpretation into congruence with its whole relational context and into compatibility with its whole relational process; thus it does not disembody the relational words by the author that reveal object-God communicated from subject-God in relationship. For Paul, experiential truth must by its nature involve the relational epistemic process in which truth is from beyond the reader as “subject” and is definitively found in the object-God of the text (notably confirmed in quantitative history). The reader cannot define and determine the object of the text without reducing the ontology and function of object-God; and involvement in the relational epistemic process with the Spirit is the conclusive means to disclaim reification by the reader. Yet, this does not complete the relational epistemic process for experiential truth.
It is vital not only to distinguish object-God from subject-reader but equally important to distinguish the subject-God who relationally communicates with subject-reader for relational involvement together in Subject-to-subject, Face-to-face relationship. The reader as person cannot have relational connection with an object but only with the Subject whose reciprocal involvement can be experienced in relationship together. The relational epistemic process is complete with this reciprocal relational connection with the subject-object God through the Spirit, and the integral relational outcome is the experiential truth of the whole of God’s ontology and function in relationship together as family. It is this experiential truth of the pleroma of God embodied for Face-to-face relationship together without the veil that is the basis, by the Spirit, to further embody the ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ and, with the Spirit, to ongoingly compose the whole ontology and function of the church. The experiential reality of nothing less and no substitutes for wholeness is the functional basis for Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology. Anything less and any substitutes, even in correct exegesis as referential truth or rightly integrated for doctrinal truth, are a renegotiated ecclesiology signifying a reduced ontology and function of a gathering of epistemic and/or relational orphans.
Paul previously identified the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27; Col 1:24), yet his later discourse in Ephesians on the church helps to distinguish this as nothing other than a metaphor for an organic structure and system. In Ephesians, however, Paul’s synesis (e.g. 3:4) provides the theological-functional clarity to distinguish the body of Christ beyond a metaphor of the church and makes functional the embodying of the church’s ontology as the pleroma of Christ (1:23; 4:12-13; cf. his prayer, 3:16-19). Christ’s wholeness is the peace (cf. tamiym) which Paul’s epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction have illuminated to the churches throughout his letters (e.g. 1 Cor 7:15b; 14:33; Gal 6:16; Rom 14:19; Col 3:15). In contrast to a Greek emphasis on peace, this is not about the mere absence of conflict for Paul, despite the situations he was addressing in the churches. This peace is the presence of wholeness, even in situations of conflict, that only Jesus gives (Jn 14:27). Moreover, this is the wholeness that those “in me” will have, Jesus declared (Jn 16:33); that is, the relational outcome “in Christ” Paul illuminated by the koinonia with Christ’s body and blood (1 Cor 10:16-17) and baptism in Christ’s death and resurrection through the Spirit (Rom 6:4; 8:11; 1 Cor 12:13)—the wholeness which Paul theologically and functionally clarifies in Ephesians (2:14-17; 4:3-6), and that embodies Jesus’ new wine fellowship into the church.
In full congruence, then, the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of God that Jesus embodied in death and the Spirit raised whole in the resurrection is also participated in by those in Christ through the Spirit. The relational outcome of this communion together also embodies them in the whole ontology and function as the pleroma of Christ, in the image and likeness of the whole of God (Eph 4:24; cf. 2 Cor 3:18; Rom 8:29). From the convergence of these complex theological dynamics in Paul’s theological forest emerges this reciprocating relational dynamic of embodiment by the Spirit, in which the embodied pleroma of God is relationally extended in likeness not by a metaphor but by the integrally distinguished embodying of the pleroma of Christ, that is, the embodied wholeness of the ontology and function of the church (1:9-10, 22-23).
What theological-functional clarity does Paul make definitive for the whole ontology and function of the church? First of all, that the body of Christ clearly is not a metaphor, a doctrine, a truth-claim or a confession of faith. This is the embodying of the wholeness of the church’s ontology and function in likeness of the embodied whole ontology and function in the face of Christ, distinguished in whole relationship together. Thus, embodiment is not theoretical, an ideal or an intention. The embodied church of Christ is the experiential truth of this relational outcome ‘already’ and its ongoing experiential reality in relational progression to ‘not yet’, both in reciprocal relationship with the Spirit. Therefore, the church is fully accountable to be whole in its ontology and function now for the primacy of whole relationship together. By its nature in the present, neither epistemic orphans without whole knowledge and understanding of who they are and whose they are, nor relational orphans with distance, detachment or separation in their relationships together can account for the embodying of the pleroma of Christ in its primacy of unreduced relationship. For Paul, anything less and any substitutes of whole ontology and function cannot embody pleroma ecclesiology, but only constitute a renegotiated ecclesiology of reduced ontology and function. Embodying in likeness of the embodied pleroma of God in relationship together is the initial function that Paul makes definitive for the church. This function is not optional for a church’s life and practice, nor is it reducible or negotiable. Embodiment in Paul’s ecclesiology is the key for the emergence of the church.
What emerges in this embodiment that distinguishes it clearly from all other church life and practice? Embodiment should not be confused with a common incarnational notion. Just as the incarnation of the pleroma of God is constituted in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes, so is embodiment. That is, embodiment is conjointly whole ontology irreducible to human shaping and construction and whole function nonnegotiable to human terms from human contextualization, including of culture and other contextual aspects. To embody the pleroma of Christ, by its very nature, is defined and determined by only the combined transformation of ‘who the church is’ to its ontology in the qualitative image of the holy God, and of ‘whose the church is’ to its function in the relational likeness of the whole and holy God. This transformed identity of ‘who and whose the church is’ is the new creation of God’s family, which emerges only by the reciprocal relational presence, involvement and work of the Spirit. Embodying of the church, therefore, is only the new creation; otherwise, its ontology and function cannot be in likeness to the embodied pleroma of God, as Paul clearly distinguished (4:23-24; cf. Rom 8:29). This ontology and function can be rendered at best as just an ontological simulation by relational orphans and an epistemological illusion by epistemic orphans; but relational-epistemic orphans in the church neither can constitute nor do they signify the whole ontology and function of the church in the primacy of whole relationship together of pleroma ecclesiology.
The transformation to the new creation that is necessary to embody the pleroma of Christ involves both individual persons and relationships. In Paul’s theological forest, the theological dynamics of this transformation process are made functional by the Spirit, and thus the transformation of persons and relationships is inseparable from the reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit. For Paul, the Spirit is simply indispensable for the embodying of the church to emerge in whole ontology and function distinguishing the new creation.
Paul reviews first the transformation of persons to whole ontology and function (Eph 2:1-10). The sin of reductionism prevailed in reduced human ontology and function, to which God’s thematic relational action of grace responded in agape involvement for the redemptive change necessary from reduced to whole ontology and function. The process from reductionism to wholeness involves the theological-functional dynamic of equalization, integration and reconciliation, or what I simply call redemptive reconciliation.
The redemptive change from old to new involves freeing human persons from being defined and determined by reductionism. The sin of reductionism reduces human ontology and function to be defined and determined from the outer in, for example, by what persons do and/or have. This fragments human persons and enslaves human integrity, worth and identity to these reductionist criteria, to which are ascribed human distinctions not only fragmenting but stratifying human persons as ‘better or less’. Enslavement to reductionism is redeemed by God, and persons entrenched in better-or-less distinctions are equalized from inner out before God, which frees them from fragmentation to be integrated and made whole in ontology and function. Therefore, transformed persons are equalized persons who have been freed from reductionism. Yet, transformed persons are not just free persons who have been equalized before God but who also have been equalized as persons with each other. The above influence of reductionism on the human person also results in the human shaping of relationships together (cf. Gen 3:1,7-8), most notably fragmenting and stratifying relationships. Thus, the nature of their relationships together necessarily also undergoes redemptive change. Transformed persons have not only been saved from reductionism but they are also irreducibly and nonnegotiably saved to wholeness together. In other words, being equalized from better-or-less distinctions conjointly and inseparably integrates persons to whole ontology and function and then reconciles those transformed persons into equalized relationships in order to transform their relationships together to be whole also—just as Paul previously qualified for redeemed persons (Gal 5:1,13; 6:15-16; cf. 1 Cor 8:1).
Embodying of the pleroma of Christ is distinguished only in the process of transformation to the new creation in likeness of God, which necessitates transformed persons relationally involved in transformed relationship together for the church’s whole ontology and function. The whole function aspect of this new creation, that Paul identified as the outcome of persons being equalized, is not merely the work of individual persons but also necessitates the collective function of persons together in relationship (Eph 2:10, cf. 1 Cor 12:12-13); this is the function that Paul qualifies as ontology and function in likeness of the whole and holy God (4:24).
As he develops ecclesiology to be whole, Paul illuminates the collective function of the church in order to be whole and distinguished from the common shaping of human contextualization (2:11-22). Transformed persons are equalized persons who are relationally involved in transformed relationships, which clearly necessitate equalized relationships (2:11-13, cf. Col 3:10-11). Paul makes equalized relationships together in the church the relational imperative for the whole function of the church to be compatible and congruent with the wholeness that Christ himself embodied only for the embodying of the church to be whole (pleroma) in equalized relationships together (2:14-17, cf. Col 3:15). In the transformation process to the new creation, the relational purpose primary in its theological dynamic of redemption and integration is reconciliation. Without equalized relationships in the church, relationships together are not transformed to whole relationships together with the veil removed between them, consequently they still labor in the fragmentation of persons and relationships defined by stratifying better-or-less distinctions (2:15-16)—distinctions which totally nullify God’s relational response of grace in Paul’s ecclesiology (2:8-9). God’s relational grace that removed the veil demands the loss of human distinctions in order to be in relationship with God as well as the elimination of the influence from distinctions to be in whole relationship with each other. When the relational demands of grace are not responded to, human shaping remains the primary determinant for relationship together in the church.
Without the transformed relationships of equalized relationships, what the church is saved from has lost its relational meaning and the functional significance for what it is saved to; in addition, the gospel of whole relationship together that Paul made definitive has lost the qualitative relational significance of what the church is saved to (3:6). This is the gospel of wholeness/peace (6:15) basic to what Jesus embodied and constitutes for the embodying of the whole church (3:6). Therefore, equalized relationships together are neither optional for church function nor negotiable for its embodiment. The only alternative is reductionism, which fragments church ontology and function by its counter-relational work, notably and inevitably promoting better-or-less distinctions, even under the guise of spiritual gifts and leadership roles (as Paul will clarify, 4:11-16). Such relationships only sustain the human relational condition, not make it whole. This speaks to the depth of Paul’s conjoint fight for the gospel and against its reductionism.
Just as embodying of the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ should not be confused with a conventional notion of “incarnational,” the transformation of the church’s ontology and function should not be confused with an increasingly common usage of the notion “transformational.” Paul continues on to illuminate the transformed relationships embodying the church’s whole ontology and function, and, as he does, transformed relationships are taken deeper than equalized relationships (2:18-22). Though equalized relationships are necessary to constitute the transformed relationship for the church, they are not sufficient by themselves to complete the transformed relationships involved in the whole relationships together of God’s new creation family.
Transformed relationships are relationships both with God and with each other together as family. While transformed persons are equalized persons before God with the veil removed, they are not in equalized relationship with the whole and holy God. Nevertheless they have a unique relationship with God to participate in God’s life. This unique involvement more deeply signifies the transformed relationships necessary together with God and with each other to be whole as God’s new creation family and the pleroma of Christ. Paul initially defines this unique relational involvement as having “access in one Spirit to the Father” (2:18). The term for access (prosagoge) was used for an audience granted to someone lesser by high officials and monarchs; it comes from prosago, to bring near. This involved not merely an open door but the opportunity to interact with someone greater. Access for Paul goes deeper than this notion. He defines further the nature of this relational involvement with the Father as “access to God in boldness and confidence” (3:12). “Boldness” (parresia) involves to speak all that one thinks, feels, that is, with “confidence” (pepoithesis, trust). This trust to share one’s person openly with the Father—as Jesus engaged with the Father at Gethsemane and on the cross—points to more vulnerable intimate involvement, not merely having access to the Father. This is the intimate connection that Paul previously defined for those who have been equalized to be relationally involved with Abba as his very own daughters and sons, and the connection that makes functional their relational belonging and ontological identity (Gal 4:4-7; Rom 8:15). Access to the Father, therefore, involves this intimate relationship together in which the whole of God is relationally involved by family love in being family together (Eph 2:4,22); and this intimate reciprocal involvement is reinforced by Paul’s prayer for specifically knowing God in their hearts (1:17-18; 3:16-19)—the communion that holds them together in their innermost.
Just as important as equalized relationships for church ontology and function is this involvement in intimate relationships together with each other. Together is not a static condition but the dynamic function of relationship. The transformation of equalized relationships provides the equal opportunity without the distance or separation of stratified relations for whole relationship together to develop, but intimate relationship is the integral function that opens persons to each other from inner out for their hearts to fully come together as the new creation in likeness of the whole of God (4:24-25,32; 5:1-2, 18b-21). Intimate relationships integrally reconcile persons who have had the distance and separation in relationships removed by equalization. Moreover, intimate relationships go deeper than just occupying time, space and activities together, even as equal persons, and take involvement to the depth of agape relational involvement in likeness of the pleroma of God (3:19; 5:1-2; cf. Col 3:14). Agape is not about what to do in relation to others but how to be relationally involved with others; and agape relational involvement goes beyond sacrifice for deeper intimate relationships together—just as Jesus vulnerably disclosed in relationship together with the Father and vulnerably embodied in relationship together with us (Jn 15:9; 17:23,26).
The experiential truth of the ontological identity of God’s new creation family depends on the function of these intimate relationships together. There is no alternative or substitute for intimate relationships that can bring persons into whole relationship together to embody God’s family in the experiential reality of their relational belonging. For Paul, being together is inseparable from relationship and is irreducible from the function of these relationships. This relationally belonging to each other in one body emerges only from the transformation to intimate relationships together. Relational belonging should not be confused with “belonging” to a church-group, nor should ontological identity be mistaken for church-organizational identity. Despite any cohesion of “belonging” and strength of identity in the latter, they are just simulations or illusions of the relational bond constituted only by transformed intimate relationships together (cf. 4:3).
Paul conjoins these intimate relationships together with the necessary equalized relationships in a dynamic interaction to complete the transformed relationships together to embody the whole ontology and function of the church. These conjoint-transformed relationships in wholeness embody “a holy temple…a dwelling place” for the whole of God’s intimate relational involvement (2:19-22), which Jesus earlier disclosed (Jn 14:23). In Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology, the whole ontology and function of the church can be constituted only by transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together; and transformed relationships are constituted only by the conjoint function of equalized and intimate relationships together. Therefore, church ontology and function is this new creation in likeness of the whole and holy God, nothing less and no substitutes. And the function of these transformed relationships together, both equalized and intimate, distinguish the church unequivocally as God’s new creation family, and thereby those who relationally belong in this definitive ontological identity are clearly distinguished from any other church gathering of relational and epistemic orphans. Most importantly, this relational dynamic and outcome of wholeness emerges entirely by the ongoing reciprocal relational involvement of the Spirit (2:18,22; 4:3-4; cf. Ti 3:5), which is why the Spirit’s person is grieved by reduced ontology and function in the church (the context of 4:30).
Embodying the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ in transformed relationship together is a relational function only in the dynamic of nothing less and no substitutes. The wholeness of God defines and determines who the church is and whose the church is. Yet, having this relational clarity of wholeness together is one issue for the church, and living its functional significance in wholeness together is a further issue ongoing in church life and practice. That is, for the church to be whole is one matter, and for the church to live whole as well as make whole is another matter; even so, for Paul these functions are inseparably interrelated in God’s new creation family. This ongoing issue for the church further amplifies the tension and conflict between wholeness and reductionism, which Paul continues to address in his ecclesiology.
As the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function emerges, reductionism and its counter-relational work increasingly seek to exert more indirect and subtle influence to define and determine church life and practice with ontological simulations and epistemological illusions, which Paul illuminated previously to the church at Corinth (2 Cor 11:12-15). In the further theological-functional clarity Paul illuminates in his pleroma ecclesiology, the functional significance of the church is never assumed but is a relational imperative ongoing for church life and practice in wholeness together; and this includes assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the church. What is this functional significance and how does its dynamic work for wholeness?
When Paul defines the church as being reconciled in one body (Eph 2:16) and as equalized persons relationally belonging to God’s family (oikeios, 2:19), this oikodome (church family not church building) is further defined as being “joined together” (2:21). Paul is providing further theological-functional clarity to his previous dialogue on the church (1 Cor 12:12-31; Rom 12:5). His earlier relational discourse appears to describe an organic or organizational structure of the church whose parts are interrelated and function in interdependence. Paul deepens the understanding of interrelated parts in interdependence by further defining the relational dynamic involved to make this function in wholeness together (4:16).
This oikodome is dynamic, not static, and by its dynamic nature necessitates ongoing growth (“building up,” oikodome) for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function as the pleroma of Christ, as Paul illuminates (4:12-13). The dynamic of oikodome both defines the church family in joint interrelations together, and determines how church family interrelations function in the interdependence necessary for embodying wholeness in its ontology and function. In Paul’s ecclesiology, oikodome is relationship-specific to the church as family, not as a religious group or organization (2:22), and, therefore, the dynamic of oikodome is functionally significant in only the depth of its relational involvement together, not to the extent of its working relations (4:15-16,25). This points to two contrasting ways interrelatedness is defined and interdependence is determined. These distinctions are critical to understand and ongoingly are essential to make because each involves a different church ontology and function, with different perceptions of human ontology and function. Not surprisingly for Paul, this difference involves the contrast between wholeness and reductionism.
Oikodome is rooted ‘in Christ’ and thus embodies Christ’s wholeness (1:23; 2:21). The dynamic of oikodome is a function of the dynamic of wholeness in ontology and function, conjointly of whole persons and whole persons in whole relationship together (i.e. transformed persons in transformed relationships together). Accordingly, the interrelations of oikodome are constituted only by whole/transformed persons in whole/transformed relationships together. Reductionism more likely does not blatantly fragment these whole interrelations, for example, as Paul encountered between Jew and Gentile, but more subtly redefines ontology and function for person and church to create distance, detachment or separation in church relations and thereby making relationships together fragmentary. Such fragmentation is effectively accomplished by defining persons from outer in by what they do/have, creating better-or-less distinctions in stratified relations which prevent deeper relational involvement (cf. 4:2). This is accomplished in a subtle yet insidious way when church leaders and church members define themselves by their roles and/or gifts and relate to each other in the church based on their roles or gifts, all for the work of ministry for building up the church. This dynamic may work for group cohesion or organizational identity in building up a gathering but it signifies a reduced ontology and function for both person and church; it is not the work “created in Christ Jesus” that Paul means for the church (2:10). Such practice is a major misinterpretation of Paul’s ecclesiology, which does not have the relational outcome he defined for whole church interrelations and their function in interdependence (4:11-13).
In Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology, the functional significance of church ontology and function emerges as the church lives “created according to the likeness of God” (4:24). The church, for Paul, is the Father’s new creation family embodied in Christ and raised up by the Spirit in the relational likeness of this whole of God, who dwells intimately present and agape-relationally involved. If not created and functioning in this likeness, church becomes a gathering from human shaping or construction in likeness of some aspect of human contextualization, which then often reifies its ontological simulations and epistemological illusions as the body of Christ.
Paul was no trinitarian in his theological development, yet his monotheism went beyond the knowledge and understanding of the Shema in Judaism. His experiential truth of Jesus and the Spirit in ongoing relationship together gave him whole knowledge and understanding of the whole of God. The relational and functional significance of Paul’s whole God constituted him as a new creation in God’s family and provided the integral relation basis and ongoing relational base for the church as God’s new creation family to be in the relational likeness of this whole of God whom he himself was experiencing. The church in likeness of the whole of God was not a theological construct in Paul’s ecclesiology, the concept of which has growing interest in modern theology, of course, as the church in likeness of the Trinity. Yet, Paul’s understanding of the church’s likeness emerged from engagement in the relational epistemic process with the whole of God, the synesis (whole knowledge and understanding) of which appears to elude many of his readers.
In pleroma ecclesiology, church ontology and function in likeness of the whole of God is not a construct but the embodying of the relational dynamic that emerges from whole relational involvement together with both God and each other. The embodying of the interrelations of transformed/whole persons in these transformed/whole relationships is functionally significant only as it emerges in relational likeness to the whole of God’s relationships within the Godhead (cf. Col 2:9-10; 3:10-11). The interrelations within the whole of God between the Father, the Son and the Spirit can best (not totally) be defined as intimate relationship to the depth that, as Jesus disclosed, to see the Son is to see the Father, to know the Son is to know the Father (Jn 14:9; 17:26); and their intimate relationship functions together in the dynamic interaction of interdependence to the further depth that, as Jesus promised and the Father fulfilled, the Spirit’s person will be his relational replacement so that his followers would not be reduced to orphans, but by the Spirit’s relational presence and involvement the Father and the Son will be also and they all will be intimately involved together as family (Jn 14:18,23; 15:26; 16:14-15). Paul was further illuminating this intimate interrelationship together in interdependence in his letters, which he develops theologically and functionally in pleroma ecclesiology for the embodying of the church’s whole ontology and function. In trinitarian theology, this relational dynamic of God is inadequately described as perichoresis, tending to be overly conceptual.
The interdependence within the whole of God can only be understood to the extent that God has disclosed his ontology and function. In Paul’s theological systemic framework and forest, his experiential truth centered on the function Jesus embodied and on the overlapping and extended function the Spirit enacted, both of which the Father initiated and ongoingly functions to oversee. Paul’s relational connection to each of them appears to be in their specific functions, which seem to overlap and interact yet remain unique to each of them. (How this is perceived and interpreted has theological implications or repercussions depending on the interpretive framework of Paul’s readers—to be discussed further in the next chapter.)
Interacting functions in themselves, however, do not account for the dynamic of the trinitarian Persons’ whole relationship together, which underlies each of their functions and which integrates their uniqueness into the whole they constitute together in the innermost, the whole of God. The ontology and function of God’s whole relationship together lives also in interdependence. In this dynamic, any distinctions of their unique functions are rendered secondary to the primacy of relationship together; and such distinctions should not be used to define each of them or to determine their position in the Godhead. As vulnerably disclosed, the Father, the Son and the Spirit are irreducibly defined and inseparably determined only by whole relationship together, and this relational dynamic functions in various involvements in human contexts and with human contextualization to enact, embody and complete the whole of God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition, that is, to save both from reductionism and to wholeness together. To highlight their distinctions, for example, by being overly christocentric, simply binitarian, just role-specific or even gender-specific, is to diminish the whole of God’s ontology and to fragment the whole of God’s function.
Paul understood their whole relationship together as the experiential truth of the whole of God relationally undifferentiated. His synesis of this relationally whole God was the theological-functional basis for the church’s whole ontology and function to be embodied in likeness (Eph 4:4-6). Anything less or any substitute is neither in relational likeness to the whole of God, nor, therefore, embodies the intimate interrelationships together in interdependence to grow in the wholeness of the pleroma of Christ (4:12b-13).
The ontology and function of whole relationships together, either for God or the church, lives in interdependence, which for the church is the relational outcome and ongoing dynamic of transformed persons relationally involved in transformed relationships together. Church interdependence in likeness of the whole of God’s interdependence enters a critical condition when it shifts from being a function of transformed/whole relationships together. In an early letter, Paul warned against such a shift as he described this interdependence for the fragmented church at Corinth (1 Cor 12:12-31). This interdependence of the individual parts involved the connections together that resulted in covariation between the individual parts; moreover, if the parts are properly connected together, the implied result would be synergism in which the whole becomes greater than the sum of its individual parts (12:25-26; cf. Eph 4:16). What Paul points to that constitutes the connection is the relational involvement of agape (12:31). In another letter, Paul provided the theological clarification needed to define the transformed relationships together as the basis for church interdependence (Rom 12:3-16). Both of these church scenarios struggled with the influence of reductionism and its counter-relational work affecting their relationships together.
Reductionism, however, is often not as blatant as at the church in Corinth. As noted earlier, it is often more indirect and subtle, for example, involving assimilation into human contexts as existed perhaps in the Roman church (cf. Rom 12:2). The norms prevailing in the surrounding context are in their function mainly how reductionism affects church relationships together in general and church interdependence in particular. For example, when the norm for defining persons is based on what roles they perform and/or resources they have, this determines how relationships function, which affects a church’s interrelations together and, subsequently, affects church interdependence. Cultural models of family, social models of group relations, organizational and business models of interdependence, all influence a church’s interrelations together and its interdependence by these various shaping of relationships together substituting for the relational likeness of God. Furthermore, norms of individualism and individual freedom foster the independence which strain and weaken church relationships together and counter church interdependence, thereby redefining, reshaping and reconstructing what it means to be created in the likeness of God.
Reductionism defines a church and explains church function by the deeds of its individuals and their resources. A church, therefore, becomes the sum of its individuals; church interdependence is thus no longer the relational outcome of relationships together with the Spirit but a byproduct at the mercy of individuals. The shift from top-down and inner-out to bottom-up and outer-in is subtle. In the Western church today, synergism has been replaced by individualism, and church interdependence has been renegotiated to church dependence on the individual’s terms—in contrast to Paul’s relational imperative for the church (Eph 4:2,15-16; cf. Col 3:10-15). Independence is the reductionist alternative to interdependence and, intentionally or unintentionally, serves as the functional substitute for it, with freedom as its identity marker. This dynamic also operates in non-Western churches in a less obvious variation of the human shaping of relationships together defining church ontology and church function. This was a major issue that Paul was fighting against, making epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction, even in that collective-oriented sociocultural context (e.g. Gal 5:1,13; Rom 12:3; Phil 2:1-4; 1 Cor 4:7; 8:1,9). Even modern neuroscience recognizes that interdependence is the natural state for human persons, and that independence is a political notion, not a scientific one.
Paul challenged the renegotiated ecclesiology of churches in reduced ontology and function, and also challenged the assumptions of theological anthropology underlying the definition of the person and its determination of relationships together in reductionist terms. Both of these conditions existed in churches apart from, in contrast to, or in conflict with the qualitative image and relational likeness of the whole of God. Paul’s challenges to such reductionism are summarized in his response to make relationally specific the functional significance of pleroma ecclesiology (Eph 4:14-25). His theological-functional clarity of this functional significance is directly connected to and emerges from his relational discourse on the theological dynamic of church ontology (4:7-13).
For the ontological identity of the church to be of functional significance, it cannot be shaped or constructed by human terms from human contextualization. In Paul’s ecclesiology, the church in wholeness is the new creation by the whole of God’s relational response of grace (“was given grace”) from above top-down, the dynamic of which (“descended…ascended”) Christ relationally embodied to make each one of us together to be God’s whole (“he might fill all things,” pleroo, make complete, 4:7-10; cf. 1:23). This is the church in wholeness embodying the pleroma of Christ. In God’s relational response of grace, Christ also gave the relational means to church leaders for the dynamic embodying of the church (4:11), which Paul previously defined also as part of the Spirit’s relational involvement to share different charisma from the whole of God (not a fragmented source) for the functional significance of the church body (1 Cor 12:4-11). Paul illuminates this further to make definitive the functional significance of embodying of the church in relational likeness to the whole and holy God.
Church leaders are given the relational means for the purpose “to equip the saints” (katartismos from katartizo, to put into proper condition, to restore to former condition, make complete, 4:12). This directly points to the dynamic of transformed persons reconciled and relationally involved in transformed relationships together in relational likeness to God, and integrated in interdependence of the various church functions (“work of ministry”) necessary for the dynamic embodying (oikodome, 4:12) of the church’s whole ontology and function of “the pleroma of Christ” (4:13). This means unequivocally: For church leaders to be of functional significance, their persons must be defined by the wholeness of the new creation in the qualitative image of God from inner out, not defined by their gifts, resources or the roles and titles they have which reduce their persons to outer in; and for their leadership to be functionally significant as transformed persons, their function must be determined by agape relational involvement in transformed relationships together (both equalized and intimate) as God’s new creation family in the relational likeness of the whole of God, not determined by the titles and roles they perform (even with sacrifice) that make distinctions, intentionally or unintentionally creating distance and stratification in relationships together. The latter practices by church leaders renegotiate ecclesiology from bottom-up based on a theological anthropology from outer in.
In Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology, church leaders in reduced ontology and function are not created or living new in the image and likeness of God and, therefore, cannot katartismos others in the interdependence necessary to be of functional significance for embodying the church in relational likeness of the whole and holy God. Nor can they proclaim the experiential truth of the gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15). Only transformed leaders—whose persons are ongoingly being restored to the image and likeness of God (anakainoo, Col 3:10-11; cf. ananeoomai, Eph 4:23)—vulnerably involved in transformed relationships together with the Spirit can help make complete the saints—that is, katarismos emerges from integral interaction with anakainoo. Only whole leaders relationally serve to make complete the saints in the interdependence that is functionally significant for the church’s whole function: to dynamically embody (oikodome) the pleroma of Christ until all those relationally belonging to God’s family come to (katantao, reach, arrive) be together as one (henotes, unity), that is, whole in their relational response of trust in reciprocal relationship together and whole in specifically knowing (epignosis) the Son of God in intimate relationship, the relational outcome of which is persons without distinctions (beyond aner) who are wholly complete (teleios) in the qualitative depth (helikia, stature) of the pleroma embodied by Christ, therefore who together with the Spirit can embody the pleroma of Christ in functional significance of the relational likeness of the whole of God (4:12-13).
Paul is not outlining an ecclesial function of church growth models, missional models or any other ministry techniques of serving for the quantitative expansion of gatherings shaped or constructed by human terms. Paul makes definitive the theological paradigm for the whole function embodying the church’s ontology and function of who the church is and whose the church is as God’s new creation family in his qualitative image and relational likeness. This paradigm is the theological dynamic of church ontology, whose function is entirely relational and whose whole ontology and function is the functional significance of just transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together in interdependence, the definitive paradigm especially for its leaders (discussed further in chap. 13).
It is unequivocal in Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology that the church in relational likeness of the whole of God is irreplaceable for the functional significance of its ontology and function. For the church’s ontology and function to be whole as God’s new creation family, it must (dei not opheilo) be the functional significance of both transformed relationships reconciled together and intimate interrelations integrated together in interdependence; and both of these are functionally significant only in agape relational involvement. Church whole relationships together are reconciled together by Christ with the Spirit, thus are by their nature irreducible; and the integrated relational outcome of church interdependence in relational likeness to the whole of God is nonnegotiable. Interdependent is how God created his new creation family, as well as created the whole human family in relationship together (cf. Gen 2:18) and integrated all of creation (cf. Col 1:20; Rom 8:19-21). Just as modern neuroscience affirms this interdependence and acknowledges the influence of reductionism to counter it, the whole ontology and function of the church embodies the functional significance of this new creation to fulfill the inherent human relational need and to solve the human problem—which neuroscience can merely identify without having good news for its fulfillment and resolution. Yet, the church in renegotiated ecclesiology is also without both the functional significance of the good news of what persons are and its relational significance of what persons can be saved to.
Renegotiated ecclesiology may be considered to be pragmatic by some of Paul’s readers, even a necessary reality. On the other hand, pleroma ecclesiology may be perceived as “just theological” by his readers, perhaps an ideal not attainable in practice. Many of his readers may even argue that some of Paul’s prescriptions for the church (e.g. about women and slaves) appear to be pragmatic ecclesiology, thus that he either contradicted his theology or suspended its ideal. While there seems to be ambiguity in some of his church prescriptions, key to understanding the whole of Paul and the whole in his ecclesiology is the perception of what context Paul is speaking from, not the context he is speaking in and to. Renegotiated or pragmatic ecclesiology is based on human contextualization and shaped by human terms. Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology emerges from God’s relational context and process and is defined and determined by God’s terms through reciprocal relational involvement with the Spirit—terms irreducible by the nature of the whole of God and nonnegotiable by the nature of the holy God. In his prescriptions for the church, Paul is speaking from God’s relational context and process. Therefore, Paul’s prescriptions need to be seen in the strategic interest and concern of pleroma ecclesiology and must not be confused with or reduced to renegotiated ecclesiology for pragmatics. His prescriptions involve a tactical shift advocated by Paul which points to the strategic concerns of God’s relational whole on God’s terms to fulfill and complete God’s thematic relational response to the human condition (women and slaves discussed in chap. 13).
The church is God’s new creation family that fulfills the inherent human relational need. The embodiment of church ontology and function can be either reduced ontology and function based on the perception of pragmatics and/or a necessary reality. Or its embodying can be whole ontology and function constituted by being transformed from old to new in the likeness of the whole and holy God. Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology makes the latter the functional imperative, not an obligatory moral imperative, by the nature of wholeness together being the only solution to the human problem that can fulfill the inherent human relational need. Moreover, by the nature of wholeness, pleroma ecclesiology cannot be reduced in its ontology of the church or be renegotiated in its function of the church and still have the functional significance for the human problem and the relational significance for the inherent human need. This is the gospel of wholeness by which the church was constituted and in which it must be congruent for the church to claim ontological identity and relational belonging with the whole of God (Eph 2:14-22; 6:15).
When Paul said “Live as children of light” (Eph 5:8), he gave both a functional imperative and a relational imperative for embodying the church. Here Paul is defining neither an obligation (or duty, opheilo) nor a moral-ethical framework, as the context of this verse may suggest (particularly for women and slaves). Rather, Paul is further illuminating what is necessary (dei) by the nature of the ontological identity of who the church is and whose the church is—that is, the ontology of the church in wholeness of those relationally belonging in God’s new creation family. This is made necessary not by a theological construct of light but by the experiential truth of the Light in reciprocal relational involvement with Christ together with the Spirit, just as Jesus vulnerably disclosed (Jn 8:12) and relationally embodied in the whole ontology and function of his face (2 Cor 4:6). Paul makes definitive that in face-to-face involvement with Christ in relationship together, “you are light” (Eph 5:8; cf. Mt 5:14) because God “has shone in our hearts” (2 Cor 4:6) to transform our ontology and function into the image and likeness of the whole of God (2 Cor 3:18; 5:17; Col 3:10) and now relationally belong to the family of the Light (1 Thes 5:5). For Paul personally, theologically and functionally, this is the experiential truth of “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God” (2 Cor 4:4). On the basis of this experiential truth, therefore, Paul is decisive, that by the nature of the church’s new and whole ontology it is functionally and relationally imperative to “Live as children of the ontology of the light,” no longer in the old ontology and function of darkness. Paul is unequivocal because the church’s ontology in whole relationship together is the functional and relational significance of relationally belonging wholly in family ‘already’ as “children of light…not of darkness” in relational progression to ‘not yet’ (1 Thes 5:5, in its context of eschatological concerns).
The imagery of light and darkness is unlike a traditional dualism between good and evil. For Paul, light and darkness involve the dynamic of wholeness in ontology and function and the only alternative, reductionism, which is anything less and any substitute for wholeness. “Darkness” is both an ontological condition and a relational condition, the full significance of which cannot be limited to quantitative conditions or described simply as evil. Darkness-reductionism encompasses the prevailing ontology and function of human contextualization “in which you once lived, following the course of this world” (Eph 2:2), that is, the counterproductive efforts (“unfruitful works”) of reductionism which need to be exposed, confronted and convicted (elencho, 5:11). This can only happen when light engages the darkness (5:13-14). Not to live in the ontology as light, however, is to diminish or minimalize the light by the influence of darkness, that is, by reductionism (cf. Mt 5:14-16), for which Paul makes epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction in order to embody the church’s whole ontology and function. The imperatives in Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology are for the church to live whole, God’s relational whole on God’s relational terms, in the midst of reductionism surrounding it, and to make whole any reductionism, both within itself and in the world.
Paul illuminates the light in pleroma ecclesiology because in Paul’s theological forest the light’s ontology and function emerged from the pleroma of God in pleroma Christology for pleroma soteriology with pleroma pneumatology to be embodied whole as the pleroma of Christ in pleroma ecclesiology. Furthermore, since these theological dynamics of the light in wholeness are clearly distinguished from any reduced ontology and function in darkness, the light’s whole ontology and function in church life and practice becomes more easily recognized in contrast to reductionism in darkness. The light’s contrast, however, presupposes whole ontology and function; otherwise, the church’s light can no longer claim to be different from reductionism, and thereby not be recognizable either within the church or in the world.
“You are light” supposes only an inner-out ontology (2 Cor 4:6; cf. metamorphoo, Rom 12:2) that cannot function from outer in to give just the appearance of light (cf. “angel of light” of reduced ontology and function, metaschematizo, 2 Cor 11:14). Paul clearly distinguished that the light constituted in these persons’ hearts illuminates the glory of God’s qualitative being and relational nature in the whole ontology and function of Christ’s face, therefore this light can only be whole ontology in likeness of God’s; and that light’s inner-out whole function can be at best only simulated by outer in function from reductionism, as with “an angel of light” and “ministers of righteousness” (2 Cor 11:14-15). Any outer-in simulations and illusions of light happen when light is disconnected from its source, because light is neither an energy nor ethereal and must not be disembodied from the Light. “In the Lord you are light” Paul said clearly. When Jesus disclosed his embodiment of the light, he also made clear a contingency about light. Those who have his embodied light are determined by “whoever follows me” (Jn 8:12). This is not, however, a discipleship of merely following his teachings or example—which commonly get disembodied from his person—but of following “me, my whole person,” who embodied the pleroma of God only for relationship together (Col 1:19-20; 2:9-10). For Jesus’ whole followers, this integrally involved engaging him in the primacy of the relationship together of his kingdom and the righteousness of God constituting the whole relationship of God in its innermost (Mt 6:33). On this integral relational basis, church leaders and any person wanting to serve Christ must first “follow me” in whole relationship together, as Jesus further made imperative in a paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26)—which Peter learned the hard way (Jn 21:22), and Paul points to (Eph 5:10).
In other words, Paul’s emphatic message is “you are light” only on the basis of your whole ontology from inner out, signified by the function of your heart following Jesus’ person in relationship together with the whole of God. This defines our righteousness that necessarily determines the integrity of involvement in relationship together with God, whose involvement is determined by God’s righteousness—the way God engages in relationship. For the functional imperative “live as children of light” to be functionally significant, it must by its nature (dei), and not by obligation or duty (opheilo), be the embodying of whole relationship together as God’s new creation family (the primacy of his kingdom) in likeness of God (as his righteousness in relationship). Moreover, Paul conjoins other imperatives to support this primary one of embodying the whole ontology and function of the church: “discern, distinguish and determine [dokimazo] what is pleasing to the Lord” (Eph 5:10); “Be careful then how you live both within the church and in the surrounding context…making the most of the time,” that is, exagorazo, “redeem from reductionism in these days of opportunity” (kairos, not chronos, 5:15-16); and most importantly, “be made complete [pleroo] with the Spirit” (5:18).
Paul is emphatic with these imperatives in order for the embodying of church ontology and function to be whole, as light in the darkness, in wholeness in the midst of reductionism. He is also decisive because he never underestimates the surrounding influence of reductionism (“the days exist in the sin of reductionism,” 5:16), and the persistence of its author (6:16) and its subtle presence within the church (2 Cor 11:14-15). Yet, he is not pontificating about church life and practice and legislating relationships together, nor does he prescribe anything less and any substitutes of what the whole of Jesus relationally embodied for the experiential truth of the whole gospel—the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ’s whole ontology and function (2 Cor 4:4), the gospel of wholeness (Eph 6:15). In his conjoint fight for this gospel and against any and all reductionism, Paul is not apologetic about pleroma ecclesiology. The only embodiment the Spirit raises up with the embodied pleroma of God is God’s new creation family, the church, the pleroma of Christ (Rom 8:11,14-15; Eph 1:23).
Wholeness is not optional in Paul’s ecclesiology. Wholeness is the basis for pleroma ecclesiology, which is constituted by the embodied pleroma of God himself, who “is our wholeness…making wholeness…proclaimed wholeness” (Eph 2:14-18). Therefore, by the nature of God’s wholeness, church wholeness is irreducible in its ontology and nonnegotiable in its function. Pleroma ecclesiology accounts for, signifies and constitutes nothing less and no substitutes. And for the church to live whole has inescapable implications for church life and practice.
With wholeness no longer being optional for the church and therefore no longer reducible in church life and negotiable in church practice, there emerge further implications for its ontological identity and relational belonging which are vital to understand for church life and practice.
In Ephesians, Paul illuminates pleroma ecclesiology. Yet he was not engaging in a conventional theological task but, in contrast, the experiential truth constituting the heart of who the church is and whose the church is as the pleroma of Christ. In the either-or dynamic between wholeness and reductionism, there are ongoing valid distinctions to be made and maintained for the church to embody its ontological identity. His theological dynamic of church ontology (4:7-13) is prefaced by this concern (4:1-6). Part of his concern can be understood in the relational terms of the church not experiencing identity loss or even identity theft. Thus, Paul is engaging the church directly in God’s relational process of family love (from his earlier prayer, 3:18-19) for the transformed relationships together of ‘who the church is’ necessary to be ‘whose whole family they are’: “lead a life corresponding to [axios], in congruence with, the klesis to which you have been called” (4:1). Klesis can mean call or vocation, either of which signifies the identity of the church that needs to be clearly distinguished and ongoingly lived in correspondence, congruence (axios).
The implication here is that clarity of the church’s ontological identity depends on two dynamics that must be engaged: (1) making the functional distinction of the whole integrity of who and whose the church is in church life together, and (2) maintaining and ongoingly living this relational distinction of wholeness together both within itself and in the surrounding context—“making every effort…in the bond of wholeness…one body and one Spirit…one hope of your identity [klesis], one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all” (4:3-6).
Moreover, Paul was relationally involved with churches whose surrounding context was the dominant Greco-Roman world, within the pervading ancient Mediterranean world. The further implication is that making and maintaining the distinction of the church’s whole identity in these surrounding conditions necessitates having a minority identity. That is, a minority identity signifies persons and persons together (“saints,” hagios, holy, uncommon, 5:3) who are not distinguished by the ordinary, common, normative practices of the surrounding context, that which Paul has been identifying and detailing as sins of reductionism—which Paul’s readers should neither limit to his specifics nor assume are the same for all surrounding contexts. Paul is not focused on moral purity and having a glorified status in an elite position with the notion of saints. A minority identity is hagios, uncommon, not common. Therefore, how the church lives in the surrounding context must not be with a bifocal identity (primary identity defined by human contextualization, secondary identity defined by God’s context), a hybrid identity (crossbreeding both), or with any form of pluralistic identity in mutual coexistence without the distinction of its ontological significance, that is, distinguishing its ontological identity. These identities are reductionist substitutes which cannot make and maintain the necessary distinction for the whole integrity of who and whose the church is. This distinguished identity of wholeness is easily lost or “taken” from the church (identity theft) in the common of the surrounding context, which is less about the Greco-Roman and ancient Mediterranean worlds and more about reductionism. This does not imply that the church’s ontological identity of wholeness is separated, isolated or disengaged from the surrounding context, but that how the church can be involved in it and maintain its primary identity is a function only of wholeness, which is a function of its relationships together in righteous likeness of God.
If the church does not conjointly make the functional distinction of the whole integrity of its ontological identity and ongoingly live the relational distinction of its wholeness in relationships together, the church no longer embodies the whole ontology and function of God’s new creation family. The relational consequence is various forms of ekklesia, shaping gatherings not family, to which epistemological clarification and hermeneutic correction are directed for the church’s wholeness within itself and in the surrounding context. The relational consequence of the loss of wholeness is not a conclusion Paul shaped from his own thought. Jesus already made conclusive the consequence for the new creation by mixing the new with the old (Mk 2:21-22; Lk 5:36-38).
The ontological identity of God’s whole and holy family can only by its nature of wholeness be in congruence with its klesis (call and commission to be whole) when the church lives whole in the surrounding context in order to make whole in the world. Anything less and any substitutes lack being distinguished for the three critical issues unavoidably involved in all church practice, for which each of its members in the body and members together are accountable, just as Paul himself accounted for in his own life and practice:
Paul simply illuminates further the consequence for God’s new creation family of mixing the new with the old that Jesus clearly defined for the new creation already, in which the reductionists perceive “The old is good or better” (Lk 5:39). It is unavoidable for the church and its members to give account of their practice in these three critical issues. As Paul continues on to make further imperative, this accountability is necessary both for the embodiment of the church’s whole ontology to be light in the surrounding context and for the church’s ongoing function to be whole in order to “Live as children of light” (5:8ff).
In Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology, God’s thematic relational response of grace, agape relational involvement and dynamic of wholeness (peace) converge only for this irreducible and nonnegotiable relational outcome: to embody the ontological inner-out depth of church identity in the interrelated, interdependent and integrated function of who the church is together and whose family the church distinguishes, and on this integral relational basis and ongoing relational base to embody ‘already’ the new creation family of transformed persons agape-relationally involved in transformed relationships together for the whole ontology and function of the church—in nothing less than likeness of the whole of God. This relational outcome emerged from Paul’s synesis of the theological dynamics of the whole of God (Eph 3:2-6)—from his involvement not in a theological task but in his oikonomia family responsibility to make complete the whole (pleroo) of God’s relational communication for his family (Col 1:25-28). Therefore, there are further implications inescapable for the church’s accountability.
Along with the implications for the church’s ontological identity are conjoined inescapable implications for the functional significance of relationally belonging to the church as God’s new creation family (Eph 2:14-16 in integral function with Col 3:10-11; Gal 3:26-29; 6:15). What unfolds in Paul’s theological development of pleroma ecclesiology go further and deeper, indeed well beyond, what many of Paul’s readers merely perceive as moral/ethical imperatives or household codes of collective life in the church while in the surrounding context. Paul’s pleroma ecclesiology gets to the heart of the experiential truth of relationally belonging in God’s new creation family, the implications of which the church cannot avoid being accountable for to distinguish its experiential reality. They are simply as follows:
Therefore, the combined implication of being accountable already for the relational-functional significance of transformed relationships together is for the church to be making whole within itself and living whole in a new relational order of whole relationships together. Which then distinguish the church to make whole the human condition in the world. These definitive relationships are the intimate relationships together in a new order that are without the determinacy of human distinctions from outer in and are equalized from inner out, and thus clearly in contradistinction with the reductionism of human contextualization. The church functioning intimately without human distinctions and as the equalizer may be perceived by Paul’s readers as a theological construct, whose ideal transcends pragmatic function in the real world. Without the Spirit that would be the reality. The reality also for pragmatism is a hybrid theology whose ecclesiology and anthropology lack wholeness. Yet, in the relational dynamic of Paul’s theological forest the pleroma of God relationally embodied nothing less than the whole ontology and function of God in order to embody with the Spirit nothing less than the whole ontology and function of the pleroma of Christ, the church, to fulfill God’s thematic relational response to make whole the human condition. In this defining relational process of wholeness, the relational embodying of the church is wholly constituted in the qualitative image and the relational likeness of the whole of God—the relational outcome ‘already’ in fulfillment of Jesus’ defining prayer for his family. The experiential truth of this ontological identity for Paul is found in the congruence of the church’s identity to nothing less and no substitutes, regardless of its constituency or its situation in the surrounding context. On this integral relational basis and in these whole relational terms, the wholeness of relational belonging in the church is neither optional for church function nor negotiable to other church terms and shaping. The gospel of wholeness has no other relational significance and outcome for those claiming the gospel and for those hearing its proclamation.
Moreover, just as the whole of Paul experienced for himself, it is important to underscore that this relational-functional transformation to a new relational order in the church also requires a redemptive change in the church’s perceptual-interpretive framework and lens from outer in to the inner-out framework and lens—the new phronema and phroneo with the Spirit which Paul made definitive for “zoe and wholeness” (Rom 8:5-6)—necessary for the following: for the church to have the sensitivity of quality over quantity in its life and practice, and for the church to have relational awareness in its ontological identity and relational belonging. This relational awareness is dependent on the qualitative sensitivity that is inseparable from relational function in likeness of the whole of God, which Paul clearly distinguishes from reductionism (Eph 4:14-24). This interaction composes the primacy of the qualitative and the relational in the church’s ontology and function that by necessity involves the dynamic of wholeness. Accordingly, the church is accountable for all the imperatives and implications of pleroma ecclesiology—accountability which extends to all of Paul’s readers, who themselves may require a critical change in interpretive lens to pay attention to the whole of Paul (historical, relational and theological), and a basic change in interpretive framework to understand (syniemi for synesis) the whole in Paul’s theology.
“But now in the Lord you are light. Live as children of light.” The clarity of the ontology and function of this identity is clearly distinguished only in the whole relationship together of the church’s ontology and function in likeness of the whole of God. The Spirit grieves over anything less and any substitutes—the grief from the vulnerable presence of the ontological One and intimate involvement of the relational Whole—whose sentiment necessitates the relational awareness from qualitative sensitivity for Paul’s readers to understand (Eph 4:30). As Jesus’ relational replacement, the Spirit extended much greater the relational work of the whole of Jesus into Paul (as in Jn 14:12) for Paul to embody with the Spirit the kingdom of the whole of God’s whole into the church’s whole ontology and function in likeness of the pleroma of God. God’s face unmistakably shined on his family by the face of Christ and is illuminated in the new relationship together of wholeness embodying the church, the pleroma of Christ.
The distinguished Face continued to turn to his family not only to bless but necessarily to challenge for the new relationship together in wholeness that distinguished his church. We need to look back into his face.
It is important to understand the experiential truth that in Jesus’ claim that seeing him was seeing the Father, he vulnerably disclosed in this twofold ontological and relational reality (ontological One and relational Whole) the importance of both what constitutes God’s triune being as well as what matters most to God. God’s self-disclosure embodied in Jesus was the who and what of the whole of God, and of how God only does relationships to be Whole. It is in this trinitarian relational context by this trinitarian relational process that the whole of God’s thematic action is extended in response to the human condition for relationship together as family in family love. While those who respond back cannot experience ontological oneness (eis eimi) with the whole of God, they can have in reciprocal relationship the experiential truth of relational oneness (en eimi) together with the Trinity. The experiential truth of en eimi with the Trinity is the integral relational basis and ongoing relational base for Jesus’ followers to have eis eimi with each other together as his church for the ontological oneness to be whole in likeness of the Trinity (kathos, in congruence with the Trinity, Jn 17:21-22). The whole of Jesus embodied nothing less than who, what and how the whole of God is in his relational work of grace only for relationship together and to make relationships together whole, God’s whole on God’s terms. His formative family prayer constitutes his followers together in this qualitative relational significance that matters most to God. Therefore, his church lives “ontologically one,” eis eimi together, en eimi the relationships with each other necessary to function to be “relationally whole” in likeness of the relational ontology of the Trinity.
Jesus’ composing for ecclesiology to be whole did not stop with the end of his formal earthly ministry; that was only the prelude. He had other defining interactions specific to his church, which can be considered his post-ascension discourse for the ecclesiology definitive for his church to be whole.
After the Spirit came to his church for its development and completion, the face of Jesus shined on Paul to engage him in relationship for his transformation and called him to be whole to clearly distinguish the church’s wholeness for the experiential truth of the gospel (Acts 9:1-16, Gal 2:11,14). Then Jesus challenged Peter’s perceptual-interpretive framework for making distinctions about persons/peoples, in order to redeem his bias in relationships which created barriers in his church preventing all persons from coming together in transformed relationships as God’s family without the veil (Acts 10:9-36; 15:7-9). In family love Jesus clarified the full significance of his relational work of equalization to establish the function of his church also as equalizer, and thereby the ecclesiology of the whole was being made definitive. Yet, what was formed (and reformed) theologically was not always made functional in practice, which was the reason Paul later had to chasten Peter in family love for him to practice the relationships together necessary to be whole as God’s church family congruent to the truth of the gospel.
Jesus’ post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology continued when his family love exposed reductionism in various church practices to hold them accountable for the integrity necessary to be whole as his church (Rev 2-3). Examining his discourse with these churches will help us fully understand the functional and relational significance of Jesus’ continued involvement in the ecclesiology needed for churches to be whole—God’s relational whole only on God’s qualitative relational terms.
Being whole always involves the issue of reductionism. That is because what prevails in (en) any context of the world is reductionism. Jesus calls his followers relationally out of (ek) these contexts in order to be whole together as his family, then also relationally sends them back into (eis) those surrounding contexts to live whole together as his family and to make whole the human condition (as defined in his formative family prayer, Jn 17). Without the reciprocating dynamic of this ek-eis relational involvement (discussed in chap. 11), church practice is functionally based on just en (in) the surrounding context and thereby shaped in its influence. This is problematic in function for the ongoing relational involvement with the whole of God and God’s terms to constitute the whole of who we are as church and whose we are.
Without the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement, there is no engagement of a culture’s life and practice in the surrounding context with the necessary process of reciprocating contextualization. In conjoint function with triangulation, reciprocating contextualization provides the relational process imperative for the qualitatively distinguished identity of a church to function in the surrounding context without being defined or determined by what prevails in that context. That is to say, without this reciprocating relational process in church practice, there is no consistent functional basis to negate the influence of reductionism. This leaves church practice susceptible to subtle embedding in the surrounding context, or engaging in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion, despite the presence of apparent indicators of important church practices illuminating its identity. This is illustrated in the various churches Jesus addressed, each notable for its own variation of church practice.
We examine Jesus’ discourse by starting with the church in Thyatira (Rev 2:18-29), which both establishes the framework of Jesus’ discourse and frames our discussion as we also end with this church. Thyatira is a further review from chapter seven.
As noted in part previously, Thyatira’s economy emphasized trades (including brass-working) and crafts (cf. Acts 16:14). In the Greco-Roman world of that time, trade guilds organized the various trades and were necessary to belong to if one wanted to pursue a trade (much as unions today). These guilds served various social functions as well, one of which was to meet for common meals dedicated to their patron deities, thus engaging in activities of pagan worship and immorality. For Christians not to belong to a guild and participate would generally mean becoming isolated economically and socially, which may suggest a pragmatic approach to church practice in Thyatira.
In the nature of this surrounding context, Jesus acknowledged this church’s extensive “works” (ergon, work that defined them, Rev 2:19): “love” (agape), “faith” (pistis), “service” (diakonia, service, ministry that benefits others, especially compassion to the needy), “endurance” (hypomone, enduring and not giving in to bad circumstances in contrast to makrothymia which is patience with respect to persons), and that their last works were “greater than the first,” suggesting not a status quo situation but actually doing more ergon than before. Yet, their practice also “tolerated” (aphiemi, to let pass, permit, allow, v.20) Jezebel’s teaching. What they let pass, permitted or allowed is important to understand in the above context.
Jezebel (probably a byword symbolizing the OT character of Jezebel, cf. 1 Kg 18:19) appears to be a woman (or possibly a group) accepted within this church fellowship. The practice associated with her teaching probably refers to compromise with prevailing activity related to trade guilds prominent in the city which “misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols” (planao, deceive, lead astray, 2:20, NIV). What is significant to understand here is not the obvious disparity of this teaching and practice with the desires of God. What is more significant is how these prevailing influences of the surrounding context were absorbed into the practices of this church along with all its other so-called good deeds acknowledged above. This is not simply an issue about syncretism, synthesizing competing ideologies, or even pluralism, but goes beyond merely maintaining doctrinal purity to the deeper issue about participation en a surrounding context having the prevailing presence of reductionism and its subsequent influence on their perceptual-interpretive framework. This is the lens which determined what they ignored and paid attention to, thus the lens by which they practiced their deeds in the framework of a hybrid theology. When reductionism is not negated, its influence then affects how those other deeds would be engaged with something less and some substitute for the whole of persons and relationships, thereby raising issues of wholeness, quality and significance.
Thyatira demonstrated a weak view of sin, namely sin as reductionism that was the normative character of their surrounding context and was embedded in its collective order. They also lacked involvement in reciprocating contextualization to distinguish their identity in that surrounding context without being determined by it; and any pragmatism in their practice became a euphemism for reductionism that renegotiated their ecclesiology. Their tolerance was essentially about reductionism, consequently they reinforced its counter-relational work and functioned incompatibly to be whole, God’s whole on God’s terms. The influence of reductionism is usually more subtle than observed in the Thyatira church. This is illustrated increasingly in the other churches Jesus addressed, as we look next at the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:14-22).
Laodicea was a rich city, the wealthiest Phyrygian city, ten miles west of Colossae. It was known as a prosperous banking center, for its textile industry and its renowned medical school. Their residents had great pride in their financial wealth, fine clothes and famous eye salve. But Laodicea lacked a natural water supply. Hot water was piped in from hot springs and cold water came from the mountains. Both were lukewarm by the time it reached Laodicea. Since hot water was preferred for bathing and cold for drinking, there were frequent complaints about their water as inconvenient to their exceptionally comfortable lifestyle. This background gives important context for Jesus’ discourse and helps us understand further the significance of his concern for ecclesiology to be whole.
To Jesus, how the church in Laodicea functioned was just like their water: lukewarm. Though tepid does suggest that their church practice was “hot” earlier, church life and practice was now comfortable, self-satisfied and complacent, essentially status quo of what prevailed (3:16). Their self-assessment reflected the perceptions of the surrounding city: that they were rich and had everything they needed (3:17a)—relatively speaking, of course, since the comparative process always makes such self-definition provisional. More importantly for those whose self-definition is based on what they do and have, Jesus addressed the illusion of those perceptions and exposed their reductionism (v.17b). They functioned in the epistemological illusion of reductionism, consequently their church practice was without functional substance and relational significance. For Jesus, their lukewarm practice was not only inconvenient but distasteful (“I am about to spit you out of my mouth”), which Laodiceans could readily identify with given their water condition. Moreover, their neither-cold-nor-hot practice was a lie of reductionism implying their fragmentary theological assumptions. First, there is no intermediate condition of church practice between being God’s whole as family or not, that defines its existence. Jesus held this church accountable for their integrity—even “cold” was better than a lie—which is how family love functions with its working assumption. Then there was the assumption of their theological anthropology that defined them by what they did and had, which determined their church practice. Both assumptions involve reduced ontology and function.
The Laodicean church practice should be familiar to Western churches, notably in the U.S. Yet, this is not merely about relative affluence and comfortable lifestyles. This is about the first major issue of what defines the person, and how this eventually determines how church practice functions. The surrounding context of Laodicea defined itself by what it did and had. The human person was perceived from the outer in, thereby functionally reducing the importance of the whole person from the inner out signified by the heart. In this quantitative process, both the importance of the whole person and the primary priority of whole relationship together are replaced by secondary areas of interest and concern. Substitutes are made for the functional substance of our heart and for the quality of our relationships. Substitutes involve any alternative that reduces the qualitative and functional significance of being whole as persons in relationship together. These substitutes from reductionism are what the church in Laodicea accepted (intentionally or inadvertently) from its surrounding context of the Greco-Roman world to determine its church practice, consequently creating the illusion (the epistemological illusion of reductionism) about the well-being of their existing condition. This false sense of self-understanding is ongoingly promoted, reinforced and developed by Satan, who encourages churches with Christian substitutes in ontological simulation (cf. 2 Cor 11:14-15)—which Jesus addressed further in two other churches.
While Jesus exposed the Laodicean church’s reductionist substitutes and deconstructed their illusion, he also extended further family love by making his whole person vulnerable to them for the redemptive change imperative in relationship together to be whole (3:18-19). He was clarifying for them that relationship together on God’s terms is incompatible with any reductionist practice. As family love always functions, he redefined them to pursue their whole persons from the inner out to be redeemed to come together in transformed relationships. This is signified in Jesus’ well-known words which followed—an intimate relational message of family love for his church, usually taken out of this context. The classic image of Jesus knocking at the door (v.20) is a metaphor of these deep desires of the whole of God to have intimate relationship with his family—signifying the new wine communion together. The change they needed, therefore, must (by its nature as signified in the Trinity) be a relational change transforming their practice from a mere gathering without relational belonging (church as orphanage) to whole persons intimately involved in relationships together as family (signified by “open door,” hearts coming together in intimate communion). This metaphor clearly illuminates that redemptive change is the relational imperative for his church.
This metaphor is helpful to locate the ongoing involvement of Jesus with his church: pursuing his followers for transformed relationships together as family with the veil removed. We cannot continue to reduce Jesus’ intimate relational message of family love for his church in this metaphor by perceiving it only for the individual, as is Christian convention. This metaphor of Jesus’ relational work of grace needs to be returned to its full context for use in ecclesiology. Therefore, the significance of Jesus still knocking should not be lost on even the most mature Christian because it is a relational key in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole (cf. 3:7-8). This metaphor functionally interacts with the metaphor of church as orphanage to make whole his church.
Any church practice “to be apart” continues to function with the veil. This misrepresents the gospel and is a contradiction of God’s desires specifically for the new creation family in likeness of the Trinity, which Jesus constituted earlier with his defining family prayer. Since what integrally reflects the life of the Trinity is church practice only in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology of intimate interdependent relationships as family, any alternative to the relationship of God’s whole always becomes church practice shaped as an orphanage, notably operating as an organization or as a voluntary association (cf. church in Thyatira and trade guilds). This either-or defining process is an ongoing tension for church practice. For churches to address the influence of reductionism, even in pragmatic practice, they need the presence of the whole, God’s whole. This is the whole that the relational function of the Trinity ongoingly provides as the church’s integral relational basis and ongoing relational base, by which Jesus knocks on church doors. Therefore, embracing the relational function of the Trinity emerges as the primary issue facing churches to define and determine how they will function both within themselves and in the world.
This relational issue was involved in two other churches Jesus addressed. The next church, the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3), had “a reputation of being alive” apparently in the prevailing perception, although the city hosted many pagan cults whose practices pervaded the surrounding context. The implication here is that this church lived behind their “reputation” (onoma, used as the substitute of what a person actually is). Even with their reputation of being alive, Jesus made no such assumptions about them. Rather he examined how they functioned through the qualitative lens penetrating inner out with family love. Uninfluenced by the surrounding bias, he exposed what existed beneath the outer layer of “being alive”: “you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the sources of life, thus being unaccompanied by something) based on the fact that “I have not found your works complete in the sight of God”—that is, incomplete or fragmentary based on God’s terms, not as defined by the surrounding context. With the perceptual-interpretive framework Jesus makes definitive here for ecclesiology, their “works” (ergon, works denoting what defined them) were not “complete” (pleroo, to fill up, make full, complete or whole). In other words, what defined them was not whole. What was missing in their church practice?
Since no explicit sins such as idol worship and sexual immorality were mentioned (as in Thyatira), their incomplete deeds point to something more subtle or lacking. Their activity was perceived as alive, yet likely in the quantitative aspects of bios, not the qualitative function of zoe. Their reputation signified only a substitute (onoma) of the integral identity of who, what and how his church is, consequently lacking the integrity of wholeness. While Jesus’ polemic about soiled and white (leukos, bright, gleaming) clothes described those incomplete and a remnant who weren’t incomplete respectively, bright clothes symbolized those who participated in God’s life (3:4).This is about relationship and involvement together, which soiled clothes symbolized a barrier to, precluded or maintained with relational distance. Any type of “soiled” clothes—whether stained by blatant sin or dirtied from subtle incomplete work—would have this relational consequence. I conclude this all implies the following: their deeds were not whole because they were substitutes from reductionism; and they were not whole because what defined them was based on reductionist practices; thus how they practiced church was separated or distanced from the relational involvement of God’s life, unaccompanied by the vulnerable presence and function of the Trinity, because of their sin of reductionism—in what defined their persons and determined their relationships together, and thereby in how they practiced church.
The issue of not being complete and being whole started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). The Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. When God declared “not good for human persons to be apart,” God started with Adam and Eve the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family. This was now fulfilled by Jesus—as he declared “I will not leave you as orphans” and sent us the Spirit for completion—in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family love.
This relational context and process were not the primary function of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry, so Jesus critiqued what they “filled their church” with, as he does all churches.
In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), qualitative substance was lacking. This reflected a shift in how they defined themselves from the inner out to the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo). Their lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially meaningless—though worth an image in comparative reductionists terms—while the validity of their work (apparent service and ministry) was relationally insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to wholeness of life. These are severe critiques Jesus made of a church which at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive—unlike the Laodicean church’s lukewarmness. The choice essentially of style over substance is not unique to the church in Sardis. In fact, the distinction between style (for appearance and image) and substance is blurred in many current church practices. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears to be and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers, when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success which many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work—or value to validate their position in God’s kingdom. Jesus asks, “What are we filling our churches with?” The above is not the dynamic of pleroo that distinguishes the pleroma of Christ (as Paul illuminated, Eph 1:23).
Family love functions for the integrity of relationship together to be whole, and for accountability for anything less and any substitutes. Thus, Jesus’ critiques were ‘a critique of hope’ in his call to be whole—a functional key in his involvement for ecclesiology to be God’s whole. When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai, v.2) is to emerge as new, whole persons. This was not about self-determination but redemptive change—the relational imperative. They needed to be transformed in the inner-out aspects and functions (metamorphoo) of a person, while being redeemed from the outer-in aspects and functions (metaschematizo) that did not give full importance to the qualitative function of the whole person (signified only by the heart). Their outer-in over inner-out way of defining themselves determined what they paid attention to in how they did relationships and how they practiced church—which were not complete but fragmentary and thus without wholeness. This certainly diminished their relationships both with God and with each other, though they were unaware of this condition due to the simulation and illusion of reductionism that critically reduced their qualitative sensitivity and relational awareness; consequently they ignored the lack of qualitative relational substance.
With the lens of repentance by the function of family love, Jesus called them back to what they had “received” (lambano, v.3) in relationship from the beginning: his whole person, not just his teachings. As disclosed in John 1:12, lambano means to embrace and follow him as person-teacher—that is, be his disciples not as students in the rabbinic tradition but as adherents in relationship together in progression to be whole as God’s family, thereby pointing to his formative process in the ecclesiology necessary to be whole. In other words, Jesus called them back to be whole in the qualitative function of relational work inherent in who, what and how the Trinity is, and therefore who his followers are and what his church is: the whole of God’s family distinguished by whole relationship together. For nothing less and no substitutes of this relational reality, they needed to become transformed persons from the inner out who vulnerably engage in the relational work necessary to integrate equalized and intimate relationships together to be his church family in the new relational order.
The rigorous nature of this relational process makes church practice more susceptible to reductionism; church practice accordingly is also tempted to use the easier (also read pragmatic) alternatives of reductionist substitutes—notably with a less vulnerable shaping of relationship together. The lack of primary involvement in this definitive relational work for church practice becomes even more acute with the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4).
Jesus consistently disclosed knowing these different churches’ “works” or deeds (ergon, what defined them). The list of the Ephesian church’s deeds is impressive: their “toil” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort); their “endurance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; signifies character that does not allow losing to circumstances, cf. church in Thyatira); they maintained the doctrinal purity of the church under trying circumstances and did not tolerate falsehood, unlike the Thyatira church and its hybrid theology; they even suffered repercussions for Christ’s name and yet endured the hardships to remain constant in their faith. This list forms a composite picture describing how they were, what they did and were involved in, which essentially was extremely dedicated in major church work and which can also describe a number of successful churches today.
Jesus knew not merely the information about their deeds but also knew (oida) the nature of them, and the extent of their functional significance. It may seem somewhat perplexing that Jesus was not impressed with this church and even felt to the contrary about their church practice: “You have abandoned the love you had at first” (v.4). As noted previously, if this was not Jesus’ own critique, we would easily discount this as a misguided conclusion or uninformed allegation. Yet, his discourse here for the integrity of ecclesiology raised a serious issue of church function, which is crucial to account for in how we practice church ourselves. His critique makes conclusive the very heart of his desires for ecclesiology to be whole.
The term “abandoned” (aphiemi) means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself or let alone—which would include functionally maintaining relational distance even while in close physical proximity or in mutual activity. Aphiemi is the same term Jesus used in his promise to “not leave his followers orphaned” (Jn 14:18). Connecting these relational messages provides the context and process for the function of ecclesiology to be God’s whole. In the church context at Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the whole person and not giving primary priority to whole relationship together. They worked hard doing things for God but the relational process necessary for their functional significance was deemphasized or misplaced in their effort. This often happens as churches develop and the goals of church growth become the priority of church practice. In the process, as the Ephesian church demonstrated, there is a subtle shift in which the means become the end and its primary purpose for relationship together to be whole is abandoned or made secondary.
As the term hypomone for “perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances and situations such that persons (especially God) unintentionally were ignored in relationship, inadvertently left in relational distance or emotionally forgotten. Their hypomone was in contrast to the Philadelphian church’s hypomone, which was a reciprocal relational response to Jesus’ desire (“you have kept my word”) for relationship together (3:8,10). What distinguished them from the Ephesian church was the latter’s referentialization of the Word. Enduring “for the sake of my name” (2:3) narrowed down “my name” to “name without my person,” that is, apart from relationship together. By “abandoning” their involvement in relationship together (however unintentional or inadvertent), their focus shifted to their persevering character of not giving in to bad circumstances. Thus, their endurance for the sake of “name with my person” also stands in contrast to makrothymia, which is patience, endurance, longsuffering with respect to persons; the former is about dedication in hard work (characteristic of the Ephesian church) while the latter involves relationship with mercy, grace and family love (cf. Mt 18:21-22, Rom 2:4).
Despite what would usually be defined as significant church practice reflecting sound ecclesiology, there was distance in their relationships leaving them in the condition “to be apart,” indicating a well-run orphanage and not ecclesiology of the whole. They did not have the relational involvement of family love, which is the only involvement having relational significance to God (cf. Mary’s anointing of Jesus as a priority over ministry to the poor, Mt 26:8-13). This is further evidenced by their reduction of the truth to mere doctrinal purity. They forgot that the Truth was vulnerably disclosed only for relationship together on God’s terms, which they were effectively redefining on their terms. Essentially, their referential terms reversed the priority order of Jesus’ paradigm for serving (Jn 12:26) that clearly defined the first priority of discipleship as intimate involvement in relationship together, not focused first on the work to be done for serving (diakoneo). Consequently, they also compromised their identity as the light, which is rooted in their relationship with the Light (v.5b, cf. Mt 5:14-15); this was also contrary to Paul’s relational imperative for the church to “live as children of light” (Eph 5:8). Since they focused primarily on what they did—indicating their theological anthropology in how they defined themselves—they paid attention to related situations and circumstances and less important issues, while ignoring the primacy of relationship together in family love. Functioning with this perceptual-interpretive framework of a reduced theological anthropology resulted in the relational consequences of forsaking their first love that reflected the lack of relational involvement in their church practice and signified their renegotiated ecclesiology.
This was the relational involvement Jesus called them to turn around and get back to for them to be whole: “Repent, and do the relational works you did at first” (v.5). Jesus was restoring their misplaced priorities and more deeply made discipleship definitive by further illuminating the relational significance of his paradigm for serving. This involved the first priority of discipleship, which is ongoing vulnerable involvement with Jesus in the relational progression to the whole of God’s family—the formative process in Jesus’ involvement for ecclesiology to be whole. His ecclesiology is the ongoing relational outcome of discipleship in this relational progression to the whole of God; and this by necessity vulnerably engages reciprocal relationship with the Trinity and conjointly is intimately involved in reciprocal relationships together as church family in likeness of the Trinity.
The basic complaint Jesus had against this church is the primary issue facing all churches for defining their ontology and determining how they will function: embracing the whole ontology and relational function of the Trinity, and embodying church practice in likeness of the Trinity’s relational ontology, therefore in congruence with and ongoing compatibility to Jesus’ defining prayer for his family (Jn 17:20-26). In all that the Ephesian church was doing (which was a lot), they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole of God and did not function in the context of family and process of family love constituted in the Trinity. They demonstrated a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving, as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something, however dedicated. For Jesus, this correlation is irrefutable for ecclesiology to be whole. Whether Jesus’ complaint against this church included both their relationship with God and with each other is not clearly indicated in the text. Yet we can strongly infer that it included all their relationships, because their primary emphasis on their work reflected the three major issues ongoing in life: (1) how they defined themselves, which further determined (2) how they did relationships and thus (3) practiced church. These three major issues are always deeply interrelated, and also in integral interaction with the primary issue of the Trinity, noted above, thereby together they need to be accounted for in ecclesiology in order to be whole.
The practices of both the churches in Ephesus and Sardis were contradictions in function that reflect the subtle influence of reductionism. What they focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to become embedded in ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. Moreover, the relational function of the Trinity cannot be understood in theological propositions nor experienced in church doctrine, even in its purity. By reductionist practice, these churches demonstrated how their practice (“abandoned the love you had at first” 2:4) and their understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” 3:1) became decontextualized from what was primary, and embedded in human contextualization. In their ironic struggle to remain distinct in a pluralistic Greco-Roman context, the Ephesian church stopped paying attention to the greater context which defined them and distinguished their significance. In their effort to be significant (or popular) in their surrounding context, the Sardis church ignored the primary context which constituted them. That is, they were removed, diminished or deemphasized from the relational context and process of the Trinity and needed to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity. This is the function of reciprocating contextualization in the ek-eis relational involvement that Jesus made imperative to distinguish his family in the ecclesiology to be whole and to make whole. Without this reciprocating relational dynamic, church practice increasingly finds its functional basis only en (in) the surrounding context, in which reductionism prevails.
Whatever a church’s surrounding context may be, we can expect the prevailing influence of reductionism to affect the whole of church practice. It will, that is, unless there is the ongoing function of the reciprocating ek-eis relational involvement to definitively distinguish church purpose and function from beyond merely its position en the world. Jesus’ church’s purpose and function in the primacy of relationship together to be God’s whole necessitate nothing less and no substitutes for this whole, as the terms of God’s relational grace demand. Without function in the relational terms of grace in reciprocal relational involvement, reductionism is able to shift grace’s demand for nothing less and no substitutes than the whole in church practice to anything less and any substitute (cf. “Did God really say that?”). The shift included: (1) This shift is qualitative, thus cannot be observed in quantitative terms, as the Thyatira church’s increased amount of “good deeds” demonstrated and the Laodicean church’s wealth, fine clothes and medicine illustrate; (2) This shift is ontological, away from the inner-out whole person, thus cannot be understood by an outer-in ontology of personhood, as evidenced by the Sardis church’s inability to understand its true condition; (3) This shift is relational, thus cannot be experienced in any other human activity than the primacy of intimate relationships together, as signified by the unawareness of the Ephesian church’s diminished experience in their level of relational involvement together.
As long as our perceptual-interpretive framework is narrowed down, for example, to referentialization, our lens’ view of the qualitative, the ontological and the relational will not discern the extent of the surrounding influences reducing the whole of church practice. The relational demands of grace, however, clarify for church function that nothing less and no substitutes to be whole is the only practice which has significance to God. Additionally, the lens of repentance in integral function with a strong view of sin makes no assumptions to diminish addressing sin as reductionism, first and foremost within church practice and then in the surrounding contexts. And Jesus wants “all the churches” to clearly “know that I am he who searches minds and hearts” (Rev 2:23)—that is, examines the qualitative significance of persons from inner out, whom he holds accountable for their integrity to be whole in relationships together as the whole of God’s family (2:25; 3:11). In their effort to be relevant (and possibly pragmatic) in the surrounding pluralistic context, the Thyatira church forgot in their many admirable church practices what was necessary to be whole and to make whole (cf. a similar error by the church in Pergamum in a reductionist context, Rev 2:12-15).
It is not sufficient for churches to be a mere presence, or even merely to function, en the world; their only significance is to function ek-eis (whole relational movement into) the world both to be relationally involved with others as God’s whole and, by the nature of this whole function, also to confront all sin as reductionism of the whole. That is, the church’s whole ontology and function makes whole the human condition; the church does not reflect, reinforce or sustain it. Jesus communicates directly to us about the whole of ecclesiology in his discourse, and the relational message we need to learn to listen to and receive him in about the Thyatira church is clearly illuminated: to let pass, indifferently permit or inadvertently allow—“tolerate,” which the other churches also did more subtly—the influence of reductionism in any form from the surrounding context directly diminishes the wholeness of church practice and minimalizes their relational involvement with God, with each other in the church and with others in the world. For churches to get beyond practice merely en the world, they need a different dynamic to define their life and determine their practice.
By searching hearts Jesus communicates clearly to us that church function in its innermost is about being whole, not merely engaging in correct ecclesial practices. And the eis relational engagement of church ontology and function en the world must by its nature be integrated with the ek (movement out of) relational involvement with the whole of God as its defining antecedent in the ek-eis dynamic. This reciprocating relational process negates the continuous counter-relational work of Satan and its reductionist influence (Rev 2:24) by ongoingly engaging, embracing, experiencing and extending God’s whole in the qualitative significance of the integrated ontology of both personhood and the church constituted in and by the Trinity, that is, only in the qualitative image and relational likeness of the Trinity.
In his relational discourse Jesus communicates a critical relational message to us that delineates a simple reality of life about the human person and the existing social order—matters we either pay attention to or ignore depending on our working assumptions of humanity and society. Since we do not live in a vacuum or in social isolation, our practice is either shaped by the surrounding context we are en (thus embedded) or constituted by what we enter eis that context with. In the latter function, for eis to define life and determine practice necessitates the ek relational involvement to disembed us from a surrounding context in order to transplant us into the whole of God’s relational context and process, hereby integrally constituting God’s whole for the eis relational movement back. This reciprocating relational process signifies the relational demands of grace compatible with the working assumptions with which Jesus came eis the world and his assumptions of humanity and the existing social order with which he engaged the world. On this basis, Jesus (as well as Paul) ongoingly challenges both our theological anthropology and our ecclesiology for the only purpose of wholeness.
For our practice both as person and persons together as church, disembedding from the influence of reductionism to transplant into God’s whole is the issue we need to understand in relational terms and not in conventional referential terms. Without the function of nothing less and no substitutes, which grace demands for person and church, wholeness is diminished and the whole is minimalized—that is, functionally no longer whole. For church practice to fulfill its divine purpose and function, it must account in its function for being relationally transplanted in the whole of God and God’s theological trajectory and relational path for its globalizing commission “sent to be whole” in integral relational function with its “call to be whole and holy” (as Jesus pointed the Thyatira church to, 2:26-29).
Jesus’ post-ascension discourse is not merely an addendum for his church; it is what in pre-ascension he vulnerably embodied with nothing less and no substitutes of the whole of God and ongoingly accounted for within the whole of God’s intimate response for whole relationship together. After his church had opportunity to establish its practice in his integrated call and commission, his relational message communicated in family love the critique of hope necessary for all churches also to embody in its practice the qualitative relational function to be God’s whole in likeness of the Trinity. Now in deeper reciprocal relational responsibility, his church is ongoingly accountable for the whole of God’s whole with compatible relational response back. And his post-ascension discourse for ecclesiology is clearly definitive for his church’s response to be whole as God’s new creation family, and for his church to live and make whole as equalizer for God’s new relational order in response to the human condition. His relational communication for ecclesiology composes church function—necessarily by the nature of the church’s whole ontology—only in relational congruence with his embodied function as the equalizer in the trinitarian relational context of family by the trinitarian relational process of family, nothing less and no substitutes but the whole of God’s whole on God’s qualitative relational terms.
This is the integral relational dynamic of the whole of Jesus into the whole of Paul to embody the kingdom into the church, integrally both to illuminate the experiential truth of the good news of whole relationship together and to distinguish the experiential reality of the gospel’s whole relationship together to make whole the human relational condition—even to address this condition as it may be reflected, reinforced or sustained in the different shapes of churches. With their gospel composed in whole, Jesus and Paul necessarily challenge any and all human shaping of the primacy of whole relationship together. Their challenge continues to be urgently necessary because human shaping renders both the gospel and the church without their qualitative and relational significance in the innermost.
With its narrowed-down epistemic field, the referentialization of the Word continues to turn away from the distinguished Face vulnerably present and involved in relationship—with the prevailing relational consequence of church and academy turning to a more probable theological trajectory and a less intrusive relational path. Therefore, the relational message of Jesus for his followers to be whole still communicates unavoidably today to pursue us for our reciprocal relational response: “Seek the primacy of his kingdom’s whole relationship together and its relational basis, the whole of God’s relational righteousness.”
The kingdom into church into…?
 N.T. Wright addresses the current split between the kingdom and the cross in both theology and function in “Whence and Whither Historical Jesus Studies in the Life of the Church?” in Nicholas Perrin and Richard B. Hays, eds., Jesus, Paul and the People of God: A Theological Dialogue with N.T. Wright (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2011), 137-47.
 In his study of the term mathetes (disciple), Michael J. Wilkins makes a case for calling Matthew’s Gospel a manual on discipleship in Discipleship in the Ancient World and Matthew’s Gospel (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 126-172.
 George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, rev. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 54-78.
 For a discussion of this notion, see George Eldon Ladd, A Theology of the New Testament, 103-117.
 For a discussion of the reification of worldviews, religion and ideology, see David K. Naugle, Worldview: the History of a Concept (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 101-2, 178-80, 185-86, 236-38.
For example, see John D. Zizioulos, Being as Communion:
Studies in Personhood and the Church (Crestwood, NY: St.
Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985); Catherine Mowry LaCugna,
God for Us: The Trinity and Christian Life (New York:
HarperCollins Publishers, 1991); Miroslav Volf, After Our
Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand
 John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick, loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection (New York: W.W. Norton, 2008), 248.
 For further contextual information for Thyatira and the other churches, see Bruce J. Malina and John J. Pilch, Social-Science Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2000).
©2012 T. Dave Matsuo