The Relational Progression
A Relational Theology of Discipleship
10 Following Together
Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.
. . . so that his Son would be the firstborn,
with many brothers and sisters.
Romans 8:29 NLT
Following the person of Jesus always involves adventure, no matter the period or context. Yet, this experience is related less to situations, and more to relationships. At times the practice of discipleship may indeed seem lonely. Many of those times, however, may be the consequence of individualism in our practice which inadvertently promotes relational distance, leaving us feeling alone even when our efforts are among other Christians. In contrast, as Jesus approached his death, the adventure of the situation left him isolated in increasing distress, even with his disciples surrounding him. Yet, though his disciples didn't adequately support him, relationally he was not alone because "my Father is with me" (Jn 16:32). Except for that eternal moment on the cross when his Father had to forsake him (Mt 27:46), they were together.
Following Jesus in the relational progression to the Father is probably the most difficult transition to make in discipleship. Not only must (dei) we be freed to relationship-specific practice as son or daughter, but we must also follow him together as his family in relationally specific practice as brothers and sisters. Paul revealed that this has always been the Father's desire and plan for us: to be exactly like his Son (relationally, not ontologically) in his family together (Rom 8:29).
This transition to the new kinship family of God is problematic whenever prevailing practices minimize the whole person and constrain the quality of relationships experienced--particularly as cultivated by individualism. Yet, this new kinship family is the only opportunity for every individual follower to be an essential part of God's whole (and his redemptive plan) as well as the unique opportunity to be made whole.
The transition to the corporate process of community, the corporate nature of church and the corporate function of family is fundamental for discipleship. Any development of a biblical theology of discipleship must include a distinctly defined ecclesiology (the doctrine about the church). This is not merely a doctrinal exercise or theological task about what the church is for the sake of our belief system. This is a functional approach about what the church practices for the sake of our authentic identity in who we are as followers of Christ and whose we are as the Father's.
This is about how we actually do church, not think church, talk church, intend to do church. Ecclesiology is the practice of church, which constitutes the remaining aspect of discipleship. No practice of discipleship can ever be complete without it.
However we do church today we have all been influenced by a particular ecclesiology (structured or free) and tradition (high-church or low-church). We need to understand this influence and ongoingly examine our predispositions or biases about church. While evangelical ecclesiology has been elusive (leading some to think it is nonexistent), there is nevertheless an ecclesiology being practiced--though not always clearly defined or articulated. Many evangelicals subordinate ecclesiology, church order and polity to individual piety, and thus make it secondary to the gospel itself (e.g., see Roger E. Olson). Yet, this should not confuse us to think that how we do church can be separated from or is subordinate to the message of the gospel. Ecclesiology reflects the substance of the gospel we believe; how we do church reflects the reality of the gospel we practice. Therefore, any ecclesiology which is poorly defined or inadequately articulated creates ambiguity or shallowness in our identity--the vital issues Jesus raised in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5:13-16). If the righteousness of his disciples will indeed surpass the reductionists, then discipleship must integrate authentic spirituality and functional community not in concept but in practice.
Though our thinking about church is apparently moving beyond seeing church as a place or building, there is still ambiguity in the perception of church merely as a gathering. Building on our discussion from Chapter 8, the NT church was not just any type of gathering or mere voluntary association. When Christ said he will build his church, he used the term 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, which the Greek translation of the Hebrew OT (the Septuagint) uses for Israel as the covenant community. This sets 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 redemptive history as the Father pursues a people for himself (Lk 1:17; Acts 15:14; Tit 2:14; Heb 4:9).
Jesus established the reality and substance of this covenant relationship. Yet, the identity as God's chosen people is more of a concept (albeit valid) than an actual function when the church is based solely on soteriology, particularly in only what Christ saved us from. This gives us a truncated understanding of the gospel and what his church is about. The incarnation, however, reveals a total Christology, which also includes what Christ saved us to, and constitutes the truth of the gospel (what Paul confronted Peter with in Gal 2:11ff), which includes all of us together in relational progression to the Father as his family. Christ's church or body must (dei) be rooted in the Christology of his total person and words, which then encompasses his Spirit.
The word ekklesia itself appears to have only limited descriptive value for what the church is and does. Robert Banks suggests that Paul's usage of the term has less theological significance than we should assume. As far as function is concerned, ekklesia is a static term which is not useful to define the church (local especially). We need a more dynamic understanding for the church's function than merely a gathering. This dynamic process is gained from the narrative life of Jesus and Paul's use of other metaphors for the church.
Jesus' person and words provide us with the relationship-specific nature of connection with God and the identity of his people; they also give us the understanding of the relational significance our involvement must engage--individually with God and corporately with each other. What we have discussed consistently throughout this study forms the relational context and process for Paul's metaphors of the church. In making this application to Paul's metaphors, we can arrive at a more dynamic understanding of church in its vital function. This will necessitate integrating authentic spirituality, and its importance of the whole person as well as of intimate relationships, with the corporate process of community.
To view the church as community is to see the church as dynamic, not static, and to see the church as a function of relationships, not a function of an institution or organization. This envisions the church as a people, not a place or building. With roots from the people of God in the OT, the church transforms this localized gathering (or voluntary association) and their somewhat quantitative practice into the qualitative difference of God's family in relational function and significance, both local and universal, visible and invisible.
As we envision a functional church, we should keep in mind the three important issues of practice discussed in the last chapter because they underlie how we do church: (1) how we present our self, (2) what the content of our communication is, and (3) what level of relationship we are engaging. These apply to our individual and corporate practice.
Church signifies the corporate dimension of the Christian life. Yet, the shift to a corporate perspective can deter God's plan because there are two contrasting ways to make the corporate functional. Most of our perceptions of corporate probably come from an institutional framework. This mind-set tends to predispose or bias us to see and do church in a limited way. Institutions and most organizations are a function of structure and systemic processes. While the church has organizational properties of structure (namely interdependence) and systems (e.g., covariation), the authentic church cannot be a function of organizational aspects. The apostolic church was not based on an organizational paradigm even though it had organization. At the core of the church is relationship: a covenant relationship (from the OT) and a transformed relationship (in the NT). The church is a function only of these relationships, and any structure or system serves only as secondary functions for these relationships. The "organizational cart" should never be put before the "relational horse," and the "organizational tail" should never wag the "relational dog." This is the biblical perception of corporate which comes from a relational framework--both of which involve transformation to distinguish this corporate gathering from any other in the world. This is the relational paradigm inherent in the relational progression incarnated by Jesus. When his church incarnates this relational paradigm, it presents itself as light without being ambiguous and it communicates and engages with the world as salt without being shallow.
As we approach the corporate process from this relational perspective, what does it mean for God's people to come together? Whenever his people converge together to do church, the ongoing issue remains whether this convergence is merely to a common gathering or more significantly to a shared life--redeemed, transformed and therefore new. Common faith may bring persons to church to share in a common place. Yet, the development of faith as the relational responses of trust and intimacy will not limit relational connections, for example, to the activities participated in at church.
The practice of faith as trust and intimacy will not allow the relationships between God's people to remain distant, shallow or independent. As Jesus vulnerably revealed in the presentation of his self in the incarnation, such relationships are not of the God of heart and his intimate relational nature, nor do they reflect the relationships between the three persons of the Godhead. Indeed, God doesn't do relationships on these terms, thus he does not accept such relationships from us. This is the critical foundation on which we need to construct a functional ecclesiology.
Paul brings together
various metaphors for the church (God's people, God's household or
family, a building) which serve toward the metaphor of the temple
(Eph 2:19-22; cf. Peter in
The temple metaphor does not define this relational process for us. That's why Paul uses other metaphors to complete our understanding of what constitutes coming together as the church. The metaphor of household or family provides us with this relational significance (Eph 2:19; Gal 6:10; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 2:5); the Greek terms (oikeios and its root oikos) used here, along with their significant cognates (oikodomeo, Mt 16:18; oikodome, Eph 2:21; oikonomos, 1 Cor 4:1), all point to the new kinship family of God and building his family together. This gives us the vital relational context and process for how to do church. Yet, this is not the household from industrialization or the nuclear family of today. God does not preside over this family in the role of figurehead nor does he merely dwell in the household. Unlike how we tend to do family, God's household and family involve the intimate relational process of the Father building relationships with his adopted children as family together. While his Spirit lives within each individual son or daughter, he does not work for the individual's self-autonomy or self-determination but for the whole of God's people as realized in the relational reality of God's family. This is the relational outcome covenanted by the Father and incarnated by the Son in the relational progression, which the Spirit brings to completion with his relational work.
It is God's family love which institutes the church. Family love is his love that reaches out to us, seeks to take us in and makes us a part of his own family. This is the love with which Jesus loved us and thus led to our place in God's family as his very own. This is the love which defined his purpose and our calling, and which cannot be stated only in terms of propositional truth. Family love cannot be fully communicated by or experienced with only the individual. This is the relational love of God's family, his people, the church.
His church comes together with him only for these relationships--to be his family. In the process of family love the church builds his family and extends his family love to the world. The authentic church cannot be a function of anything less than relationships, family relationships, living by his family love. This is what it means for his adoptees to represent the adopting parent and to extend his name; this is also the nature and substance of their inheritance, of which the Spirit is only a down payment (2 Cor 5:5).
When we think about Christians, we tend to think of individuals, not an organic body of believers. When the thought is about church, the dominant idea in the modern mind is a voluntary collection of individuals (however structured or ordered), not a family. Though these may accurately describe current conditions, the presence of these images indicate problems in the development of discipleship.
Since the individual and a collection of individuals tend to dominate our notions of church, even when we do perceive the church as some kind of system we don't usually understand the relational significance of this. The church is certainly much more than individuals; it is also more than the sum of those individuals. To continue our discussion (from Chap.8) of Paul's metaphor of the human body (1 Cor 12), the church is a whole, a system similar to biological systems. Paul wasn't describing anatomy but a system having synergism where the whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Yet, this synergistic effect doesn't happen automatically, regardless of what the individuals do or don't do. Nor is the synergism in a church attributed to the unilateral "signs and wonders" work of the Spirit. The church is not a mystical system but a relational system. And, of course, the relational work of the Spirit is the most important reason why this system works.
Beside the problems an individual perspective of church creates for functioning together, there is another basic change needed in our common perception of church. In terms of the voluntary aspect of membership and participation, there is too much Western connotation assumed for the meaning of voluntary. For example, optional, selective, relative and conditional are assumptions we make about church involvement based essentially on the determination by the individual. While the early church emerged in the social context of the Mediterranean world as another voluntary association, we would be in error to base our perception of the apostolic church on the sociology of a voluntary association or organization. Nothing that Jesus did and said or that his disciples effectively went on to enact, suggests the connotation of voluntary we give the church today. Even though the voluntary associations of their day did not have the loose associations most voluntary organizations have today, Jesus and the early disciples transformed this association to be different from any other in its time. As such, many could no longer continue their association with Jesus (Jn 6:66), while others gained a deeper respect of what it meant to be so aligned (Acts 5:11).
When Paul used ekklesia for the local church (e.g., Gal 1:13), he may have at times focused on a voluntary association. When he used the body metaphor to describe the church, he is no longer focused on a voluntary association because everyone in Christ belongs to it. This was not optional, though it does not become a reality unless we participate with relational reciprocity.
If voluntary had been the determining characteristic of the early church, the identity of God's people would have suffered ambiguity and shallowness. What happened to Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) touches on various issues, but here it points to the relational responsibility of the kinship family of God which limits the freedom of individual determination. This issue was not about the unethical behavior of individuals but about betrayal of the kinship family trust underlying their relationships. This betrayal was a relational action which had consequences, foremost relationally with the Father and his Spirit (5:3,4,9). Membership in God's family constitutes significant relational involvement, the quality of which cannot be adequately fulfilled by voluntary, optional, selective practice. The latter practice signifies only the terms determined by the individual, not the Father's terms for his family functioning together. The relational significance of the Father's terms evoked deep respect as a result of this situation because those in the church experienced the importance of this new kinship family--a family they permanently belonged to and could count on (5:11).
In the reality of redemption by Christ, God's people were not redeemed to be merely free; that would in effect only involve what Christ saved us from. The redemptive plan of the Father is that we are now his. Being in the body of Christ is what Christians are; this is what exists by being in Christ, whether we volunteer or not. Yet, this is not merely a descriptive condition. In the relational progression, Christ saved us to the new kinship family of his Father. This is a relational function (as well as condition) which involves presenting our self as authentic daughters and sons and engaging intimate relationships truly as brothers and sisters with family love. And for the individual, the Father has created a specific place in his church for each of us to fulfill, the design of which is not a function of individuals but a corporate function of family relationships.
The identity of Christ's disciples (who we are) does not end with the Son as a collection of individuals but our identity develops with the Father (whose we are) corporately as his family. Each of Christ's disciples has decided to follow him and be a member of his following, but it is the Father who chose us and adopted us for himself to be a permanent part of his family. This favor extended to us by the Father, enacted for us by the Son and being completed in us by the Spirit is totally a function of relationship that precludes our individual and voluntary determination.
Though the Western family norm today revolves around the individual (the consequence of which is fracturing the family), few would subscribe to family membership as voluntary. A meaningful family does not function together on this basis. Yet, this is how we tend to do church because we approach it more with an organizational framework than a family relational process. Just like the biological kinship family, there are fundamental principles and processes which go into the meaningful gathering of God's people--regardless of the particular church order (free or structured) a gathering may have. How well a church functions together is not a by-product of organization but the relational outcome of intimate family relationships.
Each of us has been chosen to be in the Father's family, so we are called to come together as his family. The church is the gathering of those called together to be his family. The authentic church is not defined by what it does (e.g., missions), nor by what it has (e.g., doctrine), though it does or has each of these. The church is defined by what it is: his family. Family needs to be the function and practice of intimate interdependent relationships. If a family concentrates, for example, on the pursuit of vocational enterprise (what it does), it will substitute secondary matters for the primacy of family relationships; if it concentrates on the practice of tradition (what it has), it will reduce the significance of family relationships to forms and roles without the substance of relational connection. Likewise, if church becomes, for example, merely the pursuit of a missional ecclesiology (what it does) or narrowly the outworking of a creed (what it has, particularly the Nicene Creed's "one, holy, catholic, apostolic church"), it will substitute quantitative elements for the qualitative difference of the intimately relational God of heart, or reduce the purpose of doctrinal purity to practice without relational significance to the vulnerable presence of God.
Both of these practices of church effectively redefine the church away from its relational process and function as his family. Missions and orthodoxy, however valid and necessary, are not sufficient in themselves to develop God's family. Orthodoxy should lead to his family and missions should reflect the extension of his family, but they do not often function for that purpose. Christ's words to the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-5) and to the church in Sardis (Rev 3:1-3) pointedly address these issues with the summary critique of these very active, successful churches: "You have forsaken your first love" (2:4), and "I have not found your deeds complete in the sight of my God" (3:2). No amount of missions or doctrinal purity can substitute or make up for the relational process and function as his family. This is first and foremost: what the church is, what we are called to be, what we come together for. Family process is how the church functions together in relational significance to God.
The church is not a static dwelling (temple) of God in which he merely observes his people doing mission or monitors their beliefs and traditions. He is vulnerably present for doing relationship and is ongoingly engaged in building his family. Church practice must be actively involved with him in this family process. Paul summarizes this calling for the church in Ephesians 4, with a particular emphasis on the purpose of every Christian's uniqueness as a person gifted by God integrated into the corporate identity of our specialness together in Christ: "to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up . . . and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work" (4:12,16).
The uniqueness of the individual person has the purpose to prepare oneself and others for "works [Gk. ergon, calling, occupation] of service [Gk. diakonia, ministry]." This can be taken as the common notion of doing service, doing ministries, doing missions. Yet, these works (calling or occupation) are all for the purpose of the relational outcome of building up (Gk. oikodome and its cognates) the body of Christ. Obviously, what is built up is not a place or building, and this goes well beyond edifying a gathering. Paul uses the metaphors of body and household to define the corporate experiential reality involving the distinct relational process of building God's family.
This new identity, rooted in Christ and the relational progression, forms in the development of this new kinship family. Clearly, this new life leaves no room for individualism. Though there is a definite unique place for the individual, it serves for building up his family (4:12). Each individual's gift from the Spirit is not for an individual interest or agenda but for the purpose of this common good. More importantly the outworking of each individual's faith is rooted in the structure of the body (and its interdependence) and the process of its corporate faith as family (4:15-16). Along with Paul's use of the body metaphor (cf. Rom 12:3-8), this suggests that: Christian identity is special but not unique for the individual; Christian function is unique but not special for the individual.
This becomes an issue for identity formation in the Western world today. The relational process involving the identity of the new person in Christ not only subordinates the individual to the church, but even more so it directly makes the meaningfulness of the individual contingent on his or her rightful function in the corporate body. This certainly does not mean that the individual is not significant to God. Yet in God's scheme of things, in the total eschatological picture of his redemptive plan the individual has little meaning apart from the function of his church. We tend to give little meaning to the church apart from its function for the individual; in doing so we operationalize church as a collection of individuals.
One of the aspects of cultures in antiquity and in some cultures today (e.g., Asian and Middle Eastern cultures) is that the individual is not a separate identity. The individual does not represent oneself but represents the family, the kinship-community of which she or he is a part. In one sense--an aspect partly negative, especially for women--the individual does not exist apart from the family. Furthermore, the issue of family shame (a critical value) is a major means of controlling individual members as well as a main source of influence to counteract individualism.
There are some similarities of this family in concept and principle to the design of the church as family; and the individual Christian in the Scriptures deferred to it. In the biblical function of the church family, however, the individual is not lost, as tends to happen in many of these other families. To the contrary, the individual is enhanced in the process of God's family. Individuals find their complete meaning and experience their full potential by actively taking up their unique function in the body of Christ--an outcome which cannot happen without the relational support from the body. This involvement redefines exercising one's so-called spiritual gifts; it involves the ongoing relational work with the Spirit to present one's self openly to engage each other in intimate family relationships. In this specific relational work, the meaning of together (coming together, being together, functioning together) takes on the deep significance of belonging--a well-being of the heart which the individual cannot achieve alone but only in permanent intimate relationships with others as a part of a whole.
In Paul's metaphors of the "body of Christ" and "family of God" we have the metaphorical truths for the church which together are necessary in constructing a functional ecclesiology and the operational model for the church. Body and family provide different aspects of this model, aspects which are vitally and inherently interrelated. Thus, each metaphor by itself is not as useful in helping us to grasp a complete understanding of the transformed church.
As we initially discussed in Chapter 8, "body of Christ" defined a certain structural dimension for the church. This metaphor emphasizes the interrelation and interdependence of its members, yet not merely for a static description. For its dynamic quality, "family of God" takes us beyond the structural to define the process by which this certain structure needs to operate in order to become functional. This specific process of interdependence necessitates the particular relational connections which result in covariation. You don't get covariation among the members (as Paul described in 1 Cor 12:25-26) unless those members live with one another in deeper relationships and broader involvement. This requires more vital intimate relationships not preoccupied with self-interests over the interest of the whole. This involves the family identity of a corporate personality in covenant relationship, as opposed to the first priority of individual identity found in U.S. and other Western cultures.
When we join together to follow Christ, we don't just become co-workers, we aren't just partners in faith. Following him in the relational progression we become family--the Father's family based on his terms in a new kinship family context and process. The key to this family process and to fulfilling our calling (and occupation) of discipleship goes back to what Paul focused on with the words "to prepare" (Eph 4:12). The term "prepare" (Gk. katartismos) is used only here in the NT and means "to restore to former condition, put into proper condition." This implies that our usual (prevailing or natural) condition is not sufficient to fulfill our calling. We need to understand this as more than a spiritual condition but also in functional terms involving our actual relationships. In particular, the function of the actual relationships with one another in the body is strongly defined by Paul as the crucial indicator of the spiritual condition of "the new self in Christ" (4:24ff).
This calling from God (cf. 4:1), for which we need to prepare (restore or put into proper functional condition), involves God's original design and purpose. As Paul goes on to define and the Greek terms for "unity . . . knowledge . . . mature . . . fullness" describe (4:13), God's whole purpose (and original design for human creation) involves the process of building and experiencing intimate relationships. First and foremost, of course, is an intimate relationship with him so that we come to truly know him (the true goal of spirituality and what eternal life is about, Jn 17:3). Yet clearly and by necessity God's purpose also includes intimate relationships with each other in building together his family. That's how God made us in his original design and purpose. And this is the former condition to which we need to be restored, the proper condition into which we need to be transformed in order to fulfill our calling, both individually and corporately.
Intimacy is the qualitative base for relationships which reflects the very qualitative difference of God (as in the Godhead). Relationships without intimacy get reduced to quantitative aspects focused on secondary matters. The church is intentionally designed for intimate relationships. Body and family are metaphors of the corporate nature of intimate relationships. Functionally, this does not mean we will have ongoing intimate relationships with everyone in church; but it does mean we can and need to have intimate connections with each other, however brief.
Our return to actually functioning in intimate relationships is the key to any family process, but for God's family it is an absolute necessity. His family, otherwise known as the transformed church, cannot be operational without these relationships. But this assumes two other necessary conditions as Paul discussed: (1) the transformation from our "old self" and how we define our self from the outer-in particularly by what we do and have (Eph 4:20-22) to the presentation of our "new self" from the inner-out as a person of heart (4:23-24); and (2) the transformation of how we do relationships based on the old definition of self to honest and vulnerable relationships reflecting family love (4:25).
Given the state of relationships since Adam and Eve east of Eden, intimate relationships only mean transformed relationships in which hearts are opened to one another and coming together. This is a dynamic relational process, not a static condition. Such open hearts mean the ongoing process of transformed persons who are redeemed. God's family is the context and process for reconciliation of these persons in these relationships. The church and its transformation, then, are predicated not only on transformed individuals but also on transformed relationships. Through the relational processes of redemption, transformation and reconciliation, the function of God's family is operationalized by interdependent and intimate relationships.
Functional ecclesiology involving discipleship in the relational progression is constructed with intimate relationships. Yet, the practice of intimate relationships as transformed relationships by transformed persons raises various issues which are important to address.
The simple fact is that intimate relationships are problematic. Not only are they difficult in church but intimate connections even elude marriage relationships, and they are illusions for many families of origin. Even in a period when the church appears to be more conscious of relationships, we should not assume that the current vocabulary used about relationships is the same language for transformed relationships. The fundamental process is that only transformed persons can practice transformed relationships. While participation in transformed relationships also further transforms those individuals, transformed persons must initiate the process of intimate relationships and the connections necessary to build them. This makes transformation and individual change necessary--ongoing necessary change, including some vulnerable issues many individuals tend to avoid.
Intimate relationships, and the ongoing intimate connections necessary to build them, have been distorted, denied or displaced by the everyday workings of sin throughout human history. This involves the practice not only of the individual but also includes the macro-level operations of institutions, societal structures, even global systems. Modernity has been especially detrimental to human relationships and has made us more sophisticated in maintaining virtual relationships as a substitute. The key issue here is how the individual becomes defined by a reduction of one's wholeness and with increasing separation from the heart, resulting in relationships which effectively promote relational distance and interfere with intimate connection.
These relational consequences occur among Christians despite their good intentions, and even happen inadvertently, because some underlying presence or influence of the old still needs to be redeemed and transformed. This could be something personal about the individual or something from the surrounding context affecting the individual, or a combination. Whatever these issues are, they need to be addressed so change to the new can emerge--redemptive change.
It can be helpful to consider some historical factors in order to better understand the operation of many churches today, and possibly our own perspectives on the matter.
There has been a strong influence of Western thought on the church which would be useful to examine in part. This involves further diminishing and compounding the place, function or sanctity of human relationships in everyday life to a level less meaningful and obviously less than God originally created us to experience, but which supposedly were reconciled through Christ in the new life order.
This influence has its roots in the Renaissance worldview in which nature becomes the domain of humanity's self-realization. Such a worldview is predicated on the belief that humanity's destiny finds its fulfillment primarily in our relation to the natural things of this world and not in relation to other humans. Along with the development of humanism, this marked a transition in human thinking which had at its core a basic confidence in the power of human intellectual and cultural achievement. While this shift may have freed the person from predisposing and biasing constraints (e.g., from the Middle Ages), its increasing quantitative approach (deduction and reductionism) had a major impact on the qualitative function of human relationships. This transition led to the Enlightenment, modernism and our underlying mind-set of progress which have had far-reaching relational consequences. Christians, along with the church, influenced by this Western thinking have been nurtured and socialized, directly or indirectly, in a process that comes into clear conflict with the relational process of the transformed church which gives primacy to interpersonal relationships.
Bob Goudzwaard identifies this historical point and how it has restructured our lives.
The centrality of the relationship of man with nature, however, is one of the most characteristic features of western culture since the Renaissance. In the modern age, the value of human personality and the social order depends to a great extent on our individual or collective ability in the areas of productive labor, economy, science, technology, and art. We distinguish ourselves as human beings primarily by the shape we give to this world through thought and creative activity rather than by the meaning of our lives to other persons.
This orientation of modern society works against the interdependent organic structure of the transformed church which links its members to each other through a vital network of intimate relationships. This vital network also is in contrast to churches which link its members through activities, goals and other areas of productive missionary labor. Yet, such a vital arrangement of relationships essentially is counterproductive to the goals influenced by modern progress and production. Whenever human production supersedes human connection, there will be a reduction in the quality of relationships with the consequence of less opportunity to experience intimacy.
Prioritizing relationships is time-consuming and thus is not efficient in the mind-set of modern progress and production sanctioned by the so-called Protestant ethic. This mind-set generates a very individualistic orientation to life--even within the context of a cohesive organization--which seeks to secure one's own position in life and not the good of the whole. This already has led to the demise of a functional extended kinship family and continues to disintegrate its substitute, the nuclear family.
This individualism is illustrated further by Goudzwaard in how a Western economist would view the market not "primarily as a meetingplace for people, but rather as a meetingplace for each separate individual with a given price. In such a worldview the market is ultimately nothing but a mechanism. Similarly, human labor is not regarded first of all as a reciprocal human relation and an expression of communal action, but rather as an individual effort to be performed by means of a particular combination of labor, land, and capital."
How easily we could substitute "church" for "market" in these statements, with a particular combination of "spiritual gifts, building and church budget, and programming." As difficult as it may be to accept these parallels, the operation of many of our churches today witnesses to little more than a mechanism for individuals to use. Any difficulty with this parallel may be in our thinking and what many Christians have uncritically embraced as the "best", the most "productive" and even the "morally right" approaches to life and everyday living. It goes back to living without a complete critique, which Jesus and the prophets provide.
Essentially, what we see operating in many of our churches today are modifications of the church resulting from these kinds of perspectives, worldviews and mind-sets. While evangelical theology may have adequately met the philosophical and theological challenges of the Enlightenment and modernism, evangelicalism in substance and practice has not sufficiently dealt with the social, economic and political ideologies characteristic of modernity. To acknowledge modern church operations as in conflict with the model of the transformed church--as set forth by Paul and operationalized in Acts--would also by necessity require us to uproot these perspectives, for example, on progress from our thinking and what we depend on to define our self. Intellectual changes alone may be less difficult, but many of these have become deeply-rooted predispositions and biases with resulting lifestyles which we hold dear to our very existence and well-being. These are matters from which we need to be redeemed.
Whenever we examine the operation of a church, its order and system, we must also look at the surrounding systems to which the church is directly connected (e.g., biological families), interrelated in some way (e.g., social institutions and other cultures), as well as systems more indirectly connected (e.g., economic and political). These surrounding systems need to be factored into our examination because they all come to bear on and can significantly influence a church operation and its members. How that happens, how that affects the members is important to understand. For discipleship it is imperative for us to deal with them because they undermine the fundamental relational context and process of the church as the body of Christ and the family of God: intimate relationships in family love.
There is a basic principle for us always to keep in focus: we are always participating in something larger than ourselves--whether that be social systems and/or the redemptive plan of history orchestrated by God. While this immediately tells us that life doesn't revolve around me, the individual (however well-meaning my self-interests may be), it addresses us to the broader realities of life for which we need to account beyond just spiritually.
Furthermore, participation in the transformed church system while also participating in its surrounding systems (e.g., culture, society, the world) is not by "taking the path of least resistance" in those surrounding systems. Unfortunately, participation often merely follows the dominant norms and values of our time, or the way things have been done--both within the church and outside of it. Being different, for example, from prevailing culture, is minimized and any related tension or conflict is circumvented. But participation in the transformed church is based on following Christ; his total life and words determine the way of participation for these transformed persons. When we examine Jesus' life and also the early church, we see them often in conflict with the way things were done, whether in a social setting or about a cultural issue. They did not opt for the path of least resistance, which would have diminished their identity and purpose in who they are and whose they are. This means transformed persons functioning in transformed relationships within the relational context and process of the transformed church--all of which functions with intimacy.
Though the fear of intimacy emerged with Adam's insecure response to God in the garden, the modern social climate generates more resistance to intimate relationship than motivation to pursue it. I suggest that this resistance and fear appear to be greater in the modern church than in any other human institution, including marriage. Even though we remain the social beings God created us, we function as (to use an oxymoron) "individual social beings" who are not truly connected relationally in the fellowship. We can readily experience being "lonely in the fellowship."
This relational consequence occurs by the will of the individual as well as often by the inadvertent design of a church. Both the individual and the church suffer from the long-term effects of modernity and struggle under the influence of individualism. Yet, while churches tend to accommodate the prevailing norms of individualism with an identity and purpose contrary to the transformed church, the individual continues to resist deeper involvement, commitment and accountability in relationships at church. Such relations are perceived (probably accurately) to have little significant outcome compared to other associations, and with more personal consequence (mainly sacrifice).
Two dominant issues in individualism create fears of intimate relationships for individuals in the church. These issues for the individual are: (1) a loss of freedom and (2) a loss of uniqueness. Unfortunately, these are issues which churches do not adequately address with the individual, either because they are also reinforcing individualism's freedom and uniqueness or because they do not understand the issues sufficiently to address them meaningfully.
The issue of personal freedom, of course, is not unique to the modern church. Paul found the related issues involving Christian liberty to be a source of major problems in the church (e.g., at Corinth) and destructive in the operation of the church's true purpose as well as of the church's integrity. The repercussions for the church were so important that Paul responded with imperatives to the Corinthians calling them back to church discipline, Christian love for the sake of one another and to those functions which go toward the building up of the church as a whole, not toward the building up of individuals (cf. 1 Cor 8:1 and the individual's use of knowledge today). Everything was directed toward the new kinship family of God.
Yet, the idea of family or anything corporate raises tension in many individuals. Whether it's due to constraining experiences (e.g., biological family or other group associations such as at school or work) or due to prevailing norms and culture, this tension results in maintaining relational distance and in cultivating fears of intimacy when left unattended. Addressing our fears of intimate relationships can help us understand that the issues usually go deeper than the loss of freedom or uniqueness.
The loss of freedom tends to be confused with the loss of control. The control issue is not only about self-determination and the freedom to make one's own choices. As social beings this goes deeper to needing to have sufficient control such that relationships will be essentially on one's own terms. Here again this is not necessarily about having one's own way all the time but more so about how much of one's true self is required in the relationship and thus how vulnerable a person is going to be. This involves how secure a person feels about one's self and how willing the individual is to risk being that self in relationship with others. The risk is minimized or eliminated when the individual can determine the terms for relationship.
In other words the fear of losing control is directly related to intimacy. When Adam and Eve lost confidence about their persons, they put on fig leaves to try to gain control of the relationship. When God approached them, they tried to keep relational distance and to present their self without being exposed. Obviously, their control didn't work with God. As the prototype, however, for human masks--presenting a less authentic self and maintaining relational distance--they successfully set in motion a relational process in which we have progressed a long way from the use of fig leaves.
We all certainly exercise some control in our relationships; some control is necessary in certain relationships. Yet, the basic approach to relationships where involvement is always measured by the individual is not the way God does relationship. Measured relationships and "measured intimacy" (another oxymoron) are relationships focused on the priority of the individual and not focused on others; thus they become self-centered relationships rather than the agape involvement and family love characteristic of the relational nature of God and the relationships of his family. Unless we address and resolve the underlying issues in how we tend to do relationships, the issue of freedom will remain a comfort zone in which the individual could avoid intimacy and the church would be counterproductive to building intimate interdependent relationships.
Similarly, the loss of being unique tends to be confused with the loss of being special. Anyone can be unique in a vacuum but when uniqueness is sought relative to others, that comparison has more to do with the need to be special. That is, there is an acknowledgment from others (or another) needed which would imply the designation of being "special" for that individual. Such individuals rarely display uniqueness in isolation but effectively in the context of relationships for the attention of what may appear to be no one in particular yet is invariably for the affirmation of another from significance. Quite often this confusion is also present in our desire to be loved. When the concern for love does not, for example, focus on the quality of love received nor require integrity from the other person giving love, as well as demand being loved for what one truly is (without embellishment), then this is not so much about the desire to be loved as the need to be important.
When persons in the church seek to be special or important, for example, by exercising their spiritual gift or fulfilling a particular role, they demonstrate the lack of specialness and importance supposedly experienced in the relational reality of Christian identity and being in Christ. Yet, the individual's importance only becomes an experiential reality within intimate relationship with God, not as an individual effort; and the individual's specialness only becomes an experiential reality within the community of intimate relationships as his new kinship family, not only in relationship with God. Individuals and churches need a new operational paradigm. Individual Christians cannot continue to seek to be special or important merely by exercising a specific function, nor can churches continue to seek for an individual's place in the body without having established the corporate identity of the body as God's family. It should be axiomatic in the Christian mind-set: Christian identity is special but not unique for the individual; individual Christian function is unique but not special for the individual.
The issues of freedom
and uniqueness clearly overlap and are interrelated. We have to
understand the underlying needs for these matters and sort them out
for us to attend to, both individually and corporately. In the needs
for control and specialness, we have to understand that we will only
fulfill the need for being special within the experience of intimate
The fears and struggles we have with intimacy need to be made our top priority because discipleship and ecclesiology, and all their related aspects, are predicated on intimate relationships. We need to continue our deliberations with this in mind.
Trust, and its generic term faith, tend to be grossly oversimplified as well as isolated to what an individual does or has. But, trust (heart-level belief) is the relational act of opening up my true self to another and giving (submitting) my self over to that person whether it's God or others. Such vulnerability is not a singular act (e.g., at times confused with conversion) nor a static condition (often confused with intellectual belief) but an ongoing relational response process fundamental to any deep relationship. Trust must operate for any relationship to be intimate; trust must be given for intimacy to be experienced. Without such submission faith is only a belief, not relationship.
Yet, how do we exercise trust and give our trust in relationships when (1) we feel something vital is going to be taken from us, or if (2) we feel we will be rejected for what we really are? These are two crucial issues which must be accounted for ongoingly if our relationships (both with God and with others) are going to function with the trust necessary to experience them as intimate relationships. The alternative, of course, is to maintain control of relationships on our terms such that they are not a function of our trust but a condition of our measured participation.
Something Taken Away
In Paul's explicit accounting of Christian practice in Romans 12, he emphasized the qualitative substance of these practices in contradistinction to the surrounding world. A major point in the chapter is the conflict authentic Christian practice has with the inequitable distinctions of persons the world makes based on an outer-in merit system, as well as its conflict with a disparaging competitive system evolving from it. These merit and competitive systems provoke the same self-concerns in which individualism is rooted. Though the individual in Paul's time did not receive the focus of attention in social terms as in a modern Western setting, nevertheless the underlying dynamics were there. Self-image and worth were based on what an individual possessed (by law, kinship or accumulation) or had achieved.
Within this type of context and being subject to these prevailing norms, there was understandable reason for self-concern--particularly for those on the fringes of society who did not have equal access to valued resources. Authentic Christian identity, however, counters these systems, worldview and mind-set by not grading the value of a person in these outer-in terms. The individual does not stand out in the world's sense, because she/he is relationally in identity with the corporate body. "Relationally in identity" is not the same as the individual being submerged or suppressed because the person is not lost in the body as often happens in other kinship systems. This is where we need to sort out what it is we don't want taken away from us and to grasp what is vital for us to have.
Authentic Christian identity is a function of the intimate interdependent relationships of the new kinship family of God. A common perception among Westerners is that corporate identity takes away individual differences and individuality. While the loss of individuality (depending on the definition) may be arguable, differences among individuals in the body do exist--natural differences, developmental differences and other God-given differences. Yet, these differences exist not as grades of distinction which further relationally distance and stratify individuals from each other; rather they serve to bring out the necessary diverse make-up which goes into an organic unit. As Paul said in Romans (12:4) all the members do not have the same function. The unique function of the individual is preserved for every Christian in the relational structure of interdependence. Yet, this uniqueness must be distinguished from specialness because that function does not make the individual special. Specialness is received and experienced from the corporate identity of intimate relationships as his family.
Homogeneity among individuals is not the goal of the transformed church, contrary to one major approach of church growth principle. Such homogeneity, in fact, would not only make the church dysfunctional (as Paul defined using the body metaphor, 1 Cor 12:14-26), it would also redefine the purpose of the church (to be expanded in Chap. 12).
In terms of trust, any misgivings or apprehensions about church involvement also have a lot to do with a particular church's ecclesiology and practice. When Paul's metaphors of the body and the family do not define the basic function of the church, then the form of church practiced determines how that church will function, not form following function. This paradigm has always been problematic in many areas of life.
Some see church as the apostolic church defined by the traditions of the church fathers, thus giving greater emphasis to its structure. Others see the apostolic church as a free church emerging from the spontaneous work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of Christians. Both are inadequate for a functional ecclesiology that can account for the two crucial issues involving trust. The free church view tends to reduce or overlook the important dynamic of covariation in the corporate body and, thus, upholds an individualistic approach to Christian faith and practice. This approach negatively affects how we present our self and do relationships, both of which are strongly related to the second issue involving trust (rejected for what we are). Those who emphasize the church's structure tend to have a static approach to the body of believers which does not adequately account for the dynamic expressions of personal spirituality and the dynamic relational process of the community of relationships as family. This approach tends to trigger the first issue of trust (something taken away) when constraint becomes an issue because of the concern for lack of opportunity.
Paul's metaphors don't necessarily suggest a singular form the church must have; but whatever form a church takes needs to follow the necessary functions defined by those metaphors. In the challenge to formulate evangelical ecclesiology, Richard Beaton makes a similar observation that "if the church is to reimagine what an ecclesiology might look like in the twenty-first century, it seems that part of that exercise will require a return to the biblical metaphors that have contributed to the structuring of the identity of the church throughout its history." Yet, Paul's metaphors imply a functional ecclesiology which defines relational structure more than institutional structure. And one of the most vital functions defined for the church is the interdependence of its members.
The earliest church seen in Acts was not a group of believers who were merely brought together without organization by the work of the Holy Spirit. There was a fluid character to this group which tends to give us the impression of the church as a very open system or even without organization. Despite that appearance, the transformed church had definite organizational aspects and a necessary structure in order to function as an interrelated group resulting in interdependence.
In Paul's use of the body metaphor, he also described the structure of the church as having a wide distribution of labor or functions (1 Cor 12:12-20). In our familiarity with the "one body, many parts" concept, the individual should not dismiss the important fact of truth here: the diversity of the church's distribution of labor is necessary for the church system to achieve optimal operation. The further fact of truth is that God arranges the make-up of the church that way (v.18; cf. Rom 12:3-6). Yet the fact of concern also remains for the individual: is this all about the individual making sacrifices for the corporate body; what does the individual gain in this arrangement? This is a legitimate concern for a church to respond to.
In the early church, given the existence of relational distance and barriers (e.g., between Jews and Gentiles) plus the human tendency toward self-interests, their structure essentially had to minimize (if not eliminate) the independence of the gatherers from each other. This was done not to take away the uniqueness of individuals nor to dissolve the diversity God invested in his people; that would have been in conflict with God's plan. This was necessary to align this gathering of believers to one another such that they would be accountable to each other for the reciprocal relationships of this new family. Accountability, however, can be a restriction or an affirmation for the individual, a burden or a blessing. It depends on how that structure functions.
Interdependence of the body should not be confused with fostering dependence in its members nor with constraining the wholeness of a person, though it certainly limits the independence of the individual. Contrary to some perceptions, interdependence actually affirms the whole person (from the inside-out) as important without grading, for example, the person's role or performance in the body. As Paul said, each person is indispensable regardless of how others perceive (Gk. dokeo, "seem," subjective estimate or opinion) the individual from the outside-in (Gk. asthenes, "weaker," less ability, 1 Cor 12:22), and thus is important. Furthermore, interdependence establishes every person (regardless of race, ethnicity, class, gender, age) within the body in a common significant value without stratifying their place based on any of these characteristics (12:24b-25a). What interdependence does effectively in function is: (1) it provides the relational context for all persons to be equalized with each other, and in doing so, (2) it opens access to the relational process of intimate relationships with each other "so that there should be no division [Gk. schisma, relational separation or distance] in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other" (12:25). The relational outcome of interdependence is covariation (v.26), such that "there were no needy persons among them" (Acts 4:34). Obviously, this reciprocal relational involvement is especially vital for the transformed church's shared life together, otherwise described by the term fellowship (which expresses a reciprocal relationship between the members based not on an external relationship or some common venture but on a deeper shared participation in the close bonds of intimate relationships).
Historically, church structure has constrained the individual and made it difficult for the person to experience wholeness. The magisterial Reformers applied "the priesthood of all believers" to soteriology but not really to ecclesiology. This still left the individual participating in a stratified church context with relational uncertainty about one's value and function. The free church alternative extended the priesthood of all believers to ecclesiology but in actual function today most so-called free churches still rely on professional staff and other trained leaders to fill the main roles of the church. This still defines individuals by what they do or have and in effect grades the members in a stratified system of more or less value in the body.
A church needs to functionally perceive and relationally embrace all of its members as persons as well as needs to address their relationships in practice with each others. If it doesn't, it could at best only remain an organization. To move toward family a church must redefine each person from the inside-out and take each person seriously as a new creature in Christ, as a daughter or son of God's family and thus be treated as a sister or brother. This means relational distance, separations and barriers need to dissolve (no schisma). In specific practical terms this means every member, female or male, young or old, able or challenged, whatever race, culture or class, must be nurtured and given the opportunities to assume an indispensable place in the body and to serve a unique function for the whole. Otherwise, participation in the church becomes a restriction for many individuals, even a burden with little substantive benefit.
Regarding the concern of something taken away, an individual must decide if he/she wants more than self-autonomy and self-determination. In many respects, these are really illusions of individualism which represent false hopes for underlying needs often left unattended. If it is wholeness and fulfillment as a person that the individual desires, then being whole cannot be achieved as only an individual. Wholeness is rooted in the Hebrew term for peace (shalom) which signifies the well-being of a community or corporate body. Wholeness, well-being and fulfillment for the individual come from being a functional part of that group in which there is peace.
The individual was never created just to be an individual. God's design and purpose for the whole person was always to be in relationship with others in the whole of his creation. The whole person cannot be whole apart from the corporate whole. This involves the person being created in the image of God as a person of heart for intimate relationships. Further understanding of this can be gained from a limited parallel to the being of God, the Trinity and how the Godhead is. Each of the persons of the Trinity is God. Yet, while each is distinct from the other, each of them individually or separately in a sense is not completely who God is. The whole of the triune God is the Father, the Son and the Spirit together ontologically (not tritheism); and, for example, the whole of the Son is not whole apart from the whole of God. Their intimate relationships with each other in interdependent structure and in intimate function demonstrate their wholeness together as well as reflect the wholeness of each of them. This wholeness and the intimate relationships inherent to it are how God created us and what his redemptive plan restores us to.
The individual needs to grasp that one can only be whole together. Individualism, and the self-autonomy and self-determination expressive of it, is the antithesis of God's design and purpose for the person (both as created originally and as a new creation in Christ). The individual becomes whole only in the wholeness of God and with the whole of his family. Or to paraphrase Augustine, God has made us for himself (and like himself) and our hearts are unfulfilled (not whole) until they find their fulfillment (wholeness) in him. (This also is related to the eternity-substance God planted in our heart which cannot be fulfilled by the temporal and common [Eccl 3:11].) Basically, the individual needs to understand what is taken away or denied by self-effort and what is gained in submitting to the corporate whole of God. And this wholeness is rooted in and a function of the intimate interdependent relationships distinguished only in the Godhead and operationalized only in his new kinship family.
There is a lot at stake here for both the individual and the church. The issue of losses and gains must be accounted for in our practice. A church, for example, cannot offer to any individual what it does not practice together. An individual cannot anticipate a loss of what one doesn't have to begin with. Both gain when their practice becomes a function of intimate relationships with each other in family love. We examine these relationships further in another issue of trust regarding the second concern of being rejected for what we really are.
Rejected for What
We Really Are
It is crucial for the individual and a church to understand that this way of defining ourselves implies the use of a deficit model. Implicit in all such assessment is the pursuit, motivation, desire, feeling to measure up to some explicit or implicit standard. Anything which does not measure up is considered deficient in some way. Whether in self-assessment or in assessing others, whenever we consider someone to be less because of this lack (usually in what we do or have) we are using the deficit model. The Gentiles were the objects of the deficit model as used by Jewish Christians (including Peter). Minority peoples and women have suffered from a deficit model in many contexts historically.
Yet, the most significant consequence of the deficit model is in relation to what we truly don't measure up to the most (and never can) but with whom we have the least reason to feel less ( and never have to). This is in relation to God and intimate relationship with him; despite his grace we continue our subtle efforts to measure up before him, to justify having the relationship, to feel worthy of his responses. These practices with the use of the deficit model are substitutes we make for the ongoing relational trust necessary for intimacy with God. These are practices which render his grace in effect unnecessary for ongoing relationship. As he was in Galatia, Paul would continue to be astounded by our practices today which have effectively displaced trust.
If it hasn't already become apparent to you, God makes himself vulnerable to us without first having to establish our trustworthiness. He opens himself up to us first, regardless of our condition, our track record or the consequences of how we may respond. Yet, he doesn't expect us to be open and vulnerable to him, and to trust him with our true self, without establishing his trustworthiness first. God knows he can be unilaterally vulnerable in the relationship but that we can't; and that we need a definite basis or assurance about him before we will trust him.
Trust is a necessary function to have in any human relationship in order to have intimacy. In human perception trust involves an assurance that we won't be rejected or let down by the other person(s), for example, even if the situation may be negative or when we don't measure up. In relationship with God, trusting him doesn't preclude experiencing hurt or prevent rejection in other situations, but it does involve the God who will relationally always be there to intimately share in it with us. Whether with others or with God, trust essentially requires the assurance that I will not be rejected for what I really am regardless. His grace in its relational significance is what God provides us in order to trust him and enter into intimate relationship. With the ongoing experience of his grace, this is what we provide each other for the trust necessary for intimate interdependent relationships as his family. To make this grace operational we need to extend ongoingly to each other the most relationally-significant function of grace: forgiveness, both in giving and receiving.
The concern about being rejected for what we really are is an ongoing reality. There is valid reason to have this concern, just as Adam and Eve had reason to hide in the garden. Unless this concern is dealt with directly we will not have deep relationships. Certainly, we can have relationships without intimacy. We may even be able to have a good relationship without intimacy. But we cannot have a deep relationship without intimacy. More importantly, it is impossible to have a transformed relationship without intimacy. If it were possible, we did not need Christ to come. Jesus establishes us in an intimate relationship with God where God's heart and our heart are joined together. In the OT, the idea of closeness or having close association (Heb. haber or Gk. koinon, from which the term fellowship comes) is never used in relation to God, with a few exceptions (notably Abraham and Moses). Instead, the OT seems to express the sense of distance which the righteous Israelite feels from God as a servant in dependence on God, not as the friend of God.
This radically changed when Christ's work on the cross tore down the veil in the temple between God and his people. This transformed our relationship with God and opened the way for deep and intimate communion together (which is exalted in celebrating the Lord's Supper). Yet, in the dynamics of the post-resurrection period (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-18), this redemption and reconciliation are not mere propositional truths but also restored relational realities forming both the model for our other relationships as well as the experiential base on which to build these relationships. They restore the relationships in church to the intimate communion of authentic fellowship.
Intimacy demands that our relationships operate predominantly on the heart level. As the God of heart, this is the only way he does relationships. We should not expect to come together in deep meaningful relationships unless they are being established at the level of our hearts. In order for us to build intimate relationships, our hearts will require new levels of honesty with our own self as well as with each other (which is why the first three beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount are so crucial to our identity and our relationships). Paul made it imperative for transformed persons to have transformed relationships by "putting off falsehood and speaking truthfully" to each other (Eph 4:25). We have to see this beyond ethics and morality but also to the context and process of relationships basic to transformed living, particularly as the transformed church. The term Paul uses for "speak" (Gk. laleo) is not about the content of speech but expression identifying one's person. Presenting our self truthfully is imperative in the new life order because of what it says about our person; that would be in contrast to the relational distance and deception of the old self. This means functionally as new persons in Christ we have to be resolved to an unavoidable condition: to live at the level of our hearts is to live openly in the fullness of our humanity, which includes being vulnerable with our weakness, fallibility and sin.
Now these are definite reasons for the heart to keep its distance or hide. These are also areas of our lives which, when left unattended, distorted or hidden, greatly reduce the quality of life for our self as well as for those we have relationships with. Living in our true humanity is especially problematic for those who define themselves by what they do (or have) and use a deficit model because exposure of any deficiencies always means being less, in their perception.
But his grace is always to the contrary. Whenever we honestly and humbly present our full humanity to him, his vulnerable response is forgiveness--the relational processes of redemption and reconciliation which engage the relationship in further intimacy. The contrast of "exposure with the consequence of less" with "vulnerable with the outcome of more" is of critical significance for the concern of trust and the experience of intimate, loving relationship. The latter was the prostitute's experience in anointing Jesus (Lk 7:36-50). The relational truth is: the person who is forgiven little loves little.
This is certainly not a singular experience only at the onset of the relationship. As an ongoing process, living in our humanity provides us further opportunities to experience and grow in this more. To distance or hide our heart is to prevent these opportunities to realize more of our transformation--as a person, in our relationships, corporately as his family. Vulnerability is a key aspect in this process to functionally becoming new. By its nature, defining ourselves by what we do or have and using a deficit model would be in conflict with being vulnerable with our true humanity.
There is no legitimate way for followers of Christ to get around living in the fullness of their humanity, if they are indeed to practice authentic discipleship. Jesus came to us in the incarnation on intimate terms--not detached, at a distance, guarded or in his superiority. In so doing Jesus made himself vulnerable to us and our sin, thereby initiating the relational process for his disciples to follow. Love does this; it makes oneself vulnerable to the one being loved. And Jesus wants us to love as he loved--as he loves us.
His grace opened the relational door to his family and dissolves any reason to withhold trust in family relations. Following Jesus' lead in this relational process means in effect that participation in the transformed church should bring out the worst in us (as in our brokenness, insecurity, fear, selfishness and other areas of sin) and, then, this needs to lead to the best in us. The worst in us opens the way for healing and purification and wholeness to take place. In actual practice, the worst in us means that if a group of believers is going to be able to grow (or even survive) it must have a new "mechanism" which adequately deals directly with their shortcomings and the sinful aspects of their humanity. Commonly used defense mechanisms which distance us from our hearts or from each other are unacceptable for the transformed church, besides being inadequate. Shortcomings and sinful aspects of our humanity cannot be hidden or avoided in any life shared together. They emerge in relationships and negatively impact others in the body--an increasing condition if left unattended.
Since we cannot be human (i.e., what we really are) and intimate with each other at the same time without our sin impacting each other directly, the most vital means in the process of building intimate relationships has to be forgiveness. For the transformed church, this forgiveness which is extended from the ongoing experience of God's grace is the only relational means to adequately deal with our concerns over the issue of trust necessary for intimate relationships--be it the concern about rejection or for acceptance, be it of one's self or of others.
In our practice we may tend to highlight mainly our positive aspects--not in explicit pride but in presenting our self apart from its full humanity. Such presentation circumvents Paul's imperative to present our self truthfully. This is the dominant norm which makes the presentation of our identity either ambiguous or shallow. But God always relates to us in our total person. In addressing us without reduction of what we really are, he judges us accordingly in love. When God judges us, he is saying "I know you, and I want you to be whole--this is the way."
In confronting us in our total person, God is loving us to be new, to be fully restored in communion. His grace accepts us and, therefore, allows us (even demands of us) to be exactly what we really are without falsehood. The defenses we put up, the substitutes we use or the alternatives we turn to for our person are no longer necessary because in forgiveness the change from the old to the new is assured. We must learn to speak this kind of truth to each other in the church if it is to be transformed--or because it is transformed, as Paul said.
This loving confrontation always opens the way to God's grace. This is "the critique of hope" discussed previously; without his grace judgment is only negative. His grace is the hope that makes our vulnerability in repentance more than a confessional. Grace always unites forgiveness to repentance. In the promise of God's way of doing relationships, forgiveness means reconciliation and, therefore, restored communion.
As the essential "mechanism" in the life of the church for it to grow as family or even to continue as a body, forgiveness is the clearly tangible, visible relational means by which God's grace is imparted among his people. It is also the real and immediate experience in which healing, purification and wholeness take effect. Thus, to be forgiven by God and by each other allows the process of intimacy to yield its joyful outcome of fulfilling relationships. These are the relationships God wants his family to enjoy and, in turn, to share with others in the world.
How does forgiveness work toward this end? Forgiveness is difficult for most persons to enact; thus, it is usually oversimplified and too loosely defined. The purpose of forgiveness is not primarily an absolution from guilt but rather forgiveness involves restoring communion, reconciling broken relationships. In this perspective forgiveness involves not merely a phrase spoken, a feeling felt or an isolated action done. Much more it is a process ending in reconciliation and, therefore, a way of life lived within God's family.
To ask for forgiveness is not just a statement one declares about something in the past, seeking to correct some misdeed. If forgiveness were merely this undoing of a past deed, it would only serve to return things (in the relationship) to the old way it was, without any change. It would not lead to what Christ saved us to. This is not sufficient. Forgiveness involves both dying and rising: dying of the old and rising of the new person. So, for the asking of forgiveness to be sufficient and complete it needs also to be a statement about the present. That is, seeking forgiveness includes the act or effort to make the relationship better than it was. This is not the same as trying to make it up to the forgiver. That's a form of payment for misdeeds that doesn't produce change. Rather, forgiveness is the commitment to open oneself up further in the relationship and, thus, the commitment to change for deeper relationship. Restoring communion is not maintaining the status quo but building intimate relationship.
This statement about the present also enables the forgiver not only to forgive the past deed but also to expect some change in the relationship from what existed before. This opens the relationship for both sides to experience more. God doesn't merely forgive us of a sin and then send us back to continue our life as it was before, though that's what many of us do. God both forgives us and purifies us; that is, he also makes us new. So he also expects us to change and to live new in our relationship with him, and to what Jesus saved us to.
At the same time, while forgiveness includes statements about the past and the present, forgiveness is not a statement about the future. Asking forgiveness implies or guarantees no future success of changed behavior. Failure may (or will) come again. For anyone asking forgiveness to say "I'll never do it again" is an empty promise about the future. That person is neither focused on the relationship in the present nor lovingly working on change in some way. To make this promise is really motivated more out of one's self-concern or interest. True forgiveness focuses on the relationship being lived in the present, not on some idea of the relationship. Change in relationships happens only in the actual practice, not in our intentions.
We generally understand that forgiveness always comes at a cost. Of course, the main cost was paid by Jesus on the cross. Essentially, the forgiver pays the cost in forgiveness. In the church family's relationships with each other this cost should not be minimized, because in spite of Christ's sacrifice the forgiver in these relationships must bear some cost also. That cost for the forgiving person also involves, similar to the forgivee, both dying and rising. For reconciliation, we are not merely dealing with a situation in which a forgiving person has been wronged, hurt or negatively affected. We are restoring communion, healing a brokenness in the body of Christ. As difficult as dying to this situation (the old) may be and letting it go, that is the cost of forgiving the other person(s). That is the cost Jesus paid to forgive us.
Yet, that is only one part of the cost. It is not sufficient in forgiveness to merely let go, for example, of anger or hurt, then cancel a debt and clear away the old to move on in one's life. After the dying must come the rising. Forgiving someone, especially in the body of Christ, includes the rising of the new. In this moment of newness forgivers are not only extending love to mend relationship but also responsible to love further for deeper relationship together.
Sometimes paying this cost is burdensome. It was for Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane and on the cross when he cried out "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me." Yet, for Jesus, and hopefully for his followers, the self is not something to possess (cf. Phil 2:1-11), but like him our self is for self-giving. As it was for his Son, in the Father's accounting for his family the cost of forgiveness does not leave a debit. Cost also directly results in significant gains; self-giving also included self-receiving. For transformed persons building transformed relationships as the transformed church the gains from forgiveness are immeasurable.
Since forgiveness is the relational process resulting in reconciliation, it is the most basic relational work necessary to engage in for Christ's disciples, both in their relationships within God's family as well as in the world. Restoring communion essentially means more love can flow, that hearts are coming together, that intimate relationships are experienced together.
In one very real sense discipleship can be simply reduced to either (1) working for reconciliation and building on it, or (2) living in brokenness and reinforcing it. There is no neutral practice in this matter, no middle ground. We can't, for example, be building fellowship in the church while living with distance in our relationships; also, we can't be working for reconciliation while reinforcing broken relationships. For the followers of Christ, (2) is not an option.
This raises an important related question. Can forgiveness be unilateral, one-sided? For forgiveness to be consummated it must be received as well as given. However, as persons who have been forgiven by God, we can't wait for someone to ask us for our forgiveness or to receive our forgiveness before initiating the forgiveness process, especially within the church. To wait for the other person stops the flow of love in us because the old is still there for us as a relational barrier, thus preventing love from growing. In the meantime, we are living in brokenness and, consequently, reinforcing brokenness by not engaging in our part of this relational work. By giving forgiveness, even though not received, we not only allow the old to die but also now can let the new further rise and live. This is vital to continue to establish the relational context and process necessary for building intimate interdependent relationships.
This new kinship family rising and living in family love functions by relationally working and extending itself for reconciliation. This is what God wants for his family; this is the purpose he gave to transformed persons as the transformed church (2 Cor 5:17-19). This is "the best in us" directly related to "the worst in us." That's the excitement, the challenge, even the struggle and, eventually, the joy his followers have in living this new life order.
With so much at stake the importance of the operation of forgiveness in transforming the church cannot be overemphasized. The new rises only after the old dies; and what Christ saved us from needs to lead to what he saved us to. Therefore, we can expect the depth and extent of the relationships the church experiences in its fellowship--both with God and each other--to be directly proportional to the amount of forgiveness taking place. This is not some theorem to observe in human relations but a distinct relational truth revealed by Jesus for his followers (Lk 7:47b).
Following Jesus together is following him to the Father and becoming his new kinship family, the transformed church. This corporate gathering is not a function of creeds, activities or any organizational aspect, nor can it function under the quantitative emphases of reductionism. As the context in which God dwells vulnerably, the church must function as God functions in order to come together in intimate relational connection.
Unlike any other kinship group or corporate association, the transformed church is a function of transformed persons building transformed relationships together. This common shared life bonded together by intimate interdependent relationships witnesses to the new life order initiated by Jesus and being brought to completion by his Spirit. In contrast and conflict, the existing old life order does not uphold the integrity of the whole person nor give top priority to the practice of intimate relationships.
Whenever the practice of church cannot be clearly distinguished from the influence of the old, the identity of God's people becomes ambiguous or shallow. Who we are and whose we are may be identified in doctrine but this identity does not function distinctly in practice. If Jesus is indeed to be the first in importance of many brothers and sisters (Rom 8:29), then to be his authentic disciples together necessitates changing to: (1) how he defined the person, (2) how he did relationships, and (3) how he practiced family. In the incarnation he defined the transformed person, he lived transformed relationships, he initiated the practice of the transformed church. If our righteousness is to surpass the reductionists, we must function as he did. If our ecclesiology is to be functional in substance, it must be based on transformed persons living transformed relationships together in the transformed church.
The substance and relational significance of Paul's metaphors for the church also clearly form these truths. The substance that emerges from his metaphors is a distinct relational paradigm, not an organizational paradigm. In understanding this, what this points to and serves is the new kinship family of God. This family process in family love is how the transformed church functions together in relational significance to God.
The reciprocal relational responsibilities of being family together are opportunities for each follower of Christ to become whole and to belong experientially to the Father as his daughter or son and to his family as sister and brother. Accountability in these reciprocal relationships is the affirmation of the person's importance to this family and the necessity of each person's unique function for the transformed church. Discipleship cannot be adequately defined apart from this intimate interdependent set of relationships and without this reciprocal relational process.
If we truly follow Jesus, we must (dei) follow together.
integrates spirituality together with and into the community of God's people by the ongoing
(1) openly trusting one's whole person to intimate relationship with Christ, and
(2) following him in the relational progression to intimate relationship with his Father by functioning as his own daughter or son, while
(3) extending this relationship to his family with love by entrusting our true self in intimate relationship as sisters and brothers and by practicing forgiveness, as well as
(4) being accountable for a functional part of the reciprocal interdependent relationships intimately connected in his whole as the new kinship family, signifying the transformed church relationally redeemed by Christ and being brought to completion relationally by his Spirit.
This relational process of discipleship is not necessarily linear but operates usually with reflexive action and always with reciprocal involvement.
Even as an individual disciple not directly engaged in the decision making of a church, it is important to formulate a distinct ecclesiology in order for discipleship to be complete and not to be reduced. Whether as an individual or as a group this issue of following together is critical for grasping God's revelation of himself in the incarnation of his Son and for understanding the significance of the gospel in what Christ saved us to.
Of most significance is following Jesus in the relational progression as his new kinship family. In his study of the NT house church Roger Gehring observes that the image Jesus preferred for the new people of God was the eschatological family of God. He concludes that this was most likely because family of God best communicated the theological essence of what Jesus was trying to impart. We can add that the function of this new kinship family (not necessarily in the form of a house church) is the practice of God's people everywhere and how to do church anywhere regardless of its tradition, even in the 21st century Western world. Christian community formation (past, present or future) is more significant than a house, a household or even a conventional family. It is a new creation unlike any experienced before, even as covenant people of God. And as transformed persons involved in transformed relationships with family love, its practice raises issues for us which need to be resolved both as individuals and as a church community.
Theology informs us of God's activity in history, his revelations in Christ's life and work, his continued presence in his Spirit and his unfolding eschatological plan; and such theology coheres in his new kinship family for us to experience as a relational reality. Define all the aspects of theology (only one part of which is ecclesiology) which go into his new kinship family. What are the implications of leaving out some aspect or reducing it?
 Roger E. Olson, "Free Church Ecclesiology and Evangelical Spirituality: A Unique Compatibility," in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion?, ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 161-178.
 Robert Banks, Paul's idea of Community, rev. (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ., 1994), 46.
 Bob Goudzwaard, Capitalism and Progress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 24.
 Ibid., 25.
 Richard Beaton, "Reimagining the Church," in Evangelical Ecclesiology: Reality or Illusion? ed. John G. Stackhouse, Jr. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 223.
 See Kittel's discussion on the koin words in Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, vol. III (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1974), 791-801.
 Roger W. Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structures in Early Christianity, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publ., 2004), 47.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.