The Relational Progression
A Relational Theology of Discipleship
11 God's People Distinguished
Study Note: Please engage each chap. in sequence because this study is cumulative.
"I pray for them . . . for they are yours."
In some respects discipleship would be less problematic if Jesus had not prayed to his Father the above prayer for his disciples. Besides eliminating the options of individualism and voluntary association in the church, Jesus defines the gathering of his followers as both special and distinct. These special and distinct aspects of this intimate fellowship directly involve the issues of identity and redemption.
Being special and having distinction would be appealing to anyone. But when you put them into the context Jesus prays about, they can easily become a source of tension and a reason for our resistance to be relationally involved as his followers. We need to examine further the issues of identity and redemption in order to ensure our integrity as God's people and to practice what truly distinguishes the church Jesus established. In discipleship the integrity of the individual is deeply interrelated with the integrity of Christ's church; likewise, what the individual and the church each practices has a direct and reflexive relation to the other. The influence and impact on each other are particularly important to understand in the issue of identity and for the ramifications of redemption.
Identity formation is a foundational issue in Jesus' teaching in the Sermon on the Mount. This is understandable because "who we are" primarily determines how we will live. As discussed in Chapter 6, however, identity formation is problematic when it takes a reductionist approach basing "who we are" essentially on what we do. This was the conflict Jesus had with the Pharisees who defined themselves as an association following a code of behavior. The problem with any identity emerging from something like a code (even if the code is correct, which it wasn't for the Pharisees) is that such an identity is always incomplete--thus, Jesus' discourse on ambiguity of the light and shallowness of the salt (Mt 5:13-16) and the necessity of Christian identity to surpass the reductionists (5:20).
Identity formed from what we do and have is always insufficient because it does not account for what we are. Inherent in "who we are" is "what we are," that is, created in the image of God (as persons of heart) for intimate relationships. Any reduction of "what we are" inadequately bases "who we are" from the outside-in. When we properly account for "what we are," identity formation takes place in the process of relationships, not based on an association from the likes of a code or any other secondary aspect.
Identity cannot be complete apart from the primary function of relationships. For the identity of Christ's followers, these are not just any kind of relationships but very special and distinct ones. When Jesus defined "who we are" in his farewell prayer, he told his Father that "they are yours" (Jn 17:9). When Christian identity is based on this special relationship with the Father, we will live in a distinct way such that we will reflect our Father to others and they will praise him (as Jesus said of the light, Mt 5:16). This relationship-based identity also encompasses the special and distinct relationships of his family in intimate corporate involvement (Jn 17:21-23). To ensure the integrity of this identity for his followers, Jesus prayed for us to be in clear contrast to the prevailing context (17:15-16). In other words, authentic Christian identity necessitates transformed persons living transformed relationships together in the transformed church functionally as his Father's family (17:17-19).
When Christian identity forms in the process of this relationship, "who we are" can never be separated from nor have meaning apart from "whose we are." Who we truly are only emerges from "whose we are," not as a propositional truth but as a relational reality. This is the first distinguishing characteristic of Christian identity. Because of the full incarnation of Jesus (from the manger through the cross), we are unequivocally the Father's. If our practice stops short in following Jesus in the relational progression to his Father, our identity will not have experiential clarity of "whose we are"--much less have confidence in who we truly are and conviction about whom to serve in the prevailing context Jesus prays about.
To be the Father's necessitates functioning as his daughter or son. Yet, to be the Father's also means to be his family's, which includes functioning as sisters and brothers. Christian identity is not unique (and therefore special) for the individual but its specialness comes from the corporate identity as his new kinship family. Authentic Christian identity formation always develops this corporate identity, the second distinguishing characteristic of Christian identity. This reciprocal relational responsibility becomes problematic, as we discussed previously. One of the repercussions of individualism in Christian practice (by the individual and the church) directly affects identity formation. Though individuals may hold certain beliefs and values in common with others in a church, they do not experience the specific quality of "belonging" which is the outcome of deeper relational bonds from ongoing intimate involvement together (cf. Jn 8:35). Consequently, these individuals tend to look elsewhere for their identity--that is, to fulfill the needs of "what they are," though they may still appear outwardly to identify with a church for "who they are."
When a church doesn't provide for "what they are," they turn to their membership in a family, group, culture or some other social area or category. God's family or church body is not their primary source of identity--whether due to individual choice or a church's lack. This is problematic for any level of discipleship because our perceptions of "what we are" are primary determinants for how we will live. Furthermore, any gap or deficiency in Christian identity formation will strongly influence how we feel about ourselves as Christ's followers and the sense of worth we have as a part of his family.
We should not minimize these issues which effectively reduce the presence of authentic Christian identity. Racial and ethnic identity, class identity, gender identity formation, among others, all demonstrate the importance of how we feel about ourselves and our sense of worth as persons. The negative causes and effects on these identities are issues which all Christians face, knowingly or unknowingly. Yet, for discipleship, identity formation as the Father's and his family's is even more important--not at the exclusion of other identities but as the primary determinant for how we will live. And that means this must be examined directly in terms of the surrounding context in which we live.
What prevails in our
lives? Multiple problems arise, for example, from a lack of
confidence in the identity we have. What distinguishes us always
becomes a question mark. Besides the difficulty demonstrating what one truly is as a person, there can also be confusion or
conflict regarding the deeper purpose of one's life. For Christians
this identity problem leads to an ambiguous presence (re: light) and
shallow function (re: salt) in the prevailing world surrounding us.
This prevailing world is the context Jesus prays for us to be in
This is the part of Jesus' prayer which probably makes discipleship the most problematic for us. To be distinguished from what prevails around us is to be in the minority. If minority status meant being special and having distinction in the prevailing context, this would be appealing. The experience of minority peoples historically, however, has been invariably the experience of being different from what prevails and thus rejected as less--the stigma of "different thus less." Yet, in effect to be the minority is the contrasting identity Jesus defines for his followers (Jn 17:14). Contrary to many prevailing notions about Christian identity (particularly in the U.S.), authentic Christian identity is distinctly a minority identity--the third distinguishing characteristic defined by Jesus.
It would be easier to be Christian apart from what Jesus defined about our identity; or, at the very least, it would be more comfortable if we could be selective about these three characteristics. But Christian identity is not about me (the individual) nor merely about us (the corporate). It is profoundly about us in relationship, and it is about a different us (transformed) living in new relationships (transformed) together as his family (the transformed church). Furthermore, Christian identity formation develops all this while it specifically functions in the broader prevailing context to extend the Father's purpose.
When we lack confidence in our identity vis-à-vis the prevailing world around us, this reflects the absence of experiencing the relational reality of "whose we are." This directly leads to a lack of conviction (functional, not theological) about just exactly "whom to serve" in the process. Such ambivalence, ambiguity or shallowness must be honestly addressed and deeply attended to in order for discipleship to continue in the relational progression as Jesus prayed for (Jn 17:24-26).
The early disciples of Christ, as seen in the book of Acts, didn't seem to lack either this confidence or conviction. At the same time they were not extraordinary Christians, given their track record up to the moment of Christ's ascension. Yet as we look further at the transformed church, we can see in their shared life together how these early disciples lived out their true identity as the family of God. They were being "who they were" by exercising "what they were" individually and corporately, in Jesus Christ. Thus, as a corporate unit of believers living in their true identity they were family, community, the organic body of Christ.
In knowing and living out together this identity in the prevailing world surrounding them, they never forgot the purpose of their shared life: the mission of Jesus Christ. Not segregated from the world, nor isolated or disconnected (mentally, emotionally, practically) from the needs and problems of humanity, they went forth from the "home-base" into the world without ambiguity about their identity and without equivocation about whom they served, nor shallowness in function to represent the Father.
This may seem simple enough in principle. Yet, with the contrary demands of everyday life, with pressures to conform to the norms of the majority or dominant group, with influences of the old order reducing the quality of life, there is much that comes to bear on Jesus' disciples which effectively could divert, contaminate or neutralize their witness in the world. This also includes overt pressures created by the intimidating efforts of force, violence and other power relations which seek to suppress God's people--even extinguish them. Historically, no one has been exempt from exposure to these influences and pressures, not even Jesus.
The early disciples were certainly objects of extreme reactions from the broader context. Yet, even with the mounting pressure on these disciples, we see them growing in the confidence of who they truly were. Contrary to the status and prestige of esteemed credentials (e.g., from a rabbinic school) and the most commonly accepted standards of the prevailing Mediterranean world, their confidence was not based on their education, formal training or knowledge. Their antagonists marveled at how confident such uneducated, common, ordinary laypersons could be simply because of being connected with Jesus (see Acts 4:13).
Since these disciples did not operate according to the prevailing common standards and values, they were freer to operate in their true identity. Certainly, how they functioned was also the outcome of their redemption. So, for example, even under extreme antagonistic pressure to conform to prevailing beliefs, the early disciples boldly kept extending their witness into the world without ambivalence about whom to serve. With clarity and depth they responded back: "We must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29).
Whatever hassles or hostilities they encountered, they would not abdicate the truth of who they were as God's people (Acts 4:19,20). This outcome was not from the practice of mere individuals but from the intimate interdependent involvement of the corporate body (as the rest of Acts 4:23ff describes). This growing confidence made their corporate identity more and more distinct from the alternative identities of the world--a minority identity designed to change the world. Living in their true identity by their distinguished presence and function in the prevailing context thus further deepened their conviction about whom they served.
The characteristics of their confidence in their true identity and their conviction about whom to serve, along with the other four characteristics (all introduced in Chap. 8), became foundational for distinguishing the shared life together of the transformed church. While the early church model does not indicate a normative pattern to structure and order the church in a particular way to follow like a code, it does reveal the necessary relational functions vital for the practice of every church in its identity as God's family--regardless of its church structure and order. They serve as guidelines for distinguishing the church within its prevailing context.
As we have discussed at different points, how the early church presented itself can all be seen as the fruit of Jesus' farewell prayer on behalf of his disciples. Throughout the incarnation Jesus established the relational context and process of being his followers. In his prayer this all converges profoundly to reveal his deep desires for his disciples, particularly in relation to their identity and purpose as his Father's.
The identity of his followers is grounded in his identity (Jn 17:14b, 16). Yet, ultimately Jesus reveals his own identity to be rooted in the Father--an identity in strong disparity with the world. Having nurtured his early disciples in the same relational process reflected in his relationship with his Father, he prayed that they be established in this same identity. Now that they were his own they could no longer be identified as of the world. Jesus, however, didn't ask that they be taken from the world; he sent them back into the world to extend the purpose his Father gave him (17:18). These nuances with the prevailing context are crucial to the practice of authentic discipleship.
Yet, Jesus knew that their presence and function in the world could only be properly fulfilled by living in their true identity as God's family. Since he was leaving them, he invoked God's transforming work through the Spirit of truth to continue to establish them in what they were (17:17). The Spirit's relational work and the intimate involvement of the corporate body were necessary for this new identity formation, because Jesus understood that to take on this identity would result in antagonistic reactions from prevailing forces in the world (cf. the eighth beatitude, Mt 5:10, 11).
This prayer reveals how deeply interrelated mission is to identity. Jesus clearly fulfilled his mission in his own earthly life (17:3-4, 26); all his followers likewise now have that same mission (17:21, 23). Generally stated, their purpose is: "to reveal the Father to the world." As the Father sent his Son into the world, Jesus sends his followers; as Christ represented his Father and revealed him, that is their purpose also. This mission became a function of identity in Jesus' life through the unity, the intimate closeness, the oneness between him and the Father. Being so rooted in the Father--ontologically, structurally and relationally--Jesus revealed God the Father throughout his life as he vulnerably lived out what he was (cf. Jn 1:18). This is the epistemological point Jesus made earlier to Thomas and Philip in John 14, as we discussed in Chapter 1.
In the same way, mission becomes a function of identity for his followers in the relational process of the unity, the intimate closeness, the oneness between God and them, as well as among themselves. This unity, intimate closeness and oneness witness to the world that they are the Father's. The outworking of this unity with deep love demonstrated the truth of the gospel (cf. Gal 2:14) and that they are his, because the unity comes from and is modeled on the unity between the Father and the Son, and because the Father loves them even as he loves the Son (17:23). But, this is not the relational outcome for those who don't live in their true identity as the people of God. To reveal the Father is to live as his own--not as the world's, but intimately as God's people, his family, the transformed church.
In order for
Christ's mission to become a function of identity, his followers
together must take on a clearly distinct identity rooted in their
intimate relationship with the Father and with each other as his
family. The nature of this identity is that it is foreign to the
world, uncommon in a common context, eternal in a temporal mode--in
other words, different. Yet, Jesus prayed for his disciples
to be more than sojourners to a heavenly kingdom in the future (cf.
Heb 11:13-16); he fulfilled the Father's promise to establish a new
life order that is in effect now. Thus, his followers are to be "alien
residents" in the land; Peter described this with two
terms ("alien," Gk. paroikos and "strangers," Gk.
parepidemos) which mean sojourners but, as parepidemos in
particular implies, not simply those who are passing through but as
foreigners who have established residence among the indigenous
people, however temporary
When anyone is expressing their identity--either in a foreign context or an identity foreign to the prevailing context--one important issue must be examined. This issue is the extent of influence on that identity by the dominant groups and prevailing culture in that context or society. For example, does a dominant group exert some control over that identity? Does intimidation limit expression of one's true identity? Does the influence of a prevailing culture diminish the identity?
These were questions faced by the early Christian community in the Mediterranean world. They had various unique ethnic identities. Even among themselves, the old religious identity and their other cultural differences were cause for dispute. Yet, what was mainly at issue was not about those reasonable practices and expectations of a particular culture and its uniqueness for its people, though some in the early church pushed for homogeneity. But other negative processes in the surrounding context often contaminated the process of identity formation and its maintenance, leading to conflicts in the early church. One such major negative influence was power relations from which unnatural stratification and systems of inequality result. This was seen in the dispute at the Jerusalem Council (see Acts 15), even after cultural and structural discrimination against non-Jews were redeemed (read Acts 10:34ff).
It was imperative for the Christian community to abandon these practices of the prevailing context--practices which essentially were used to establish one's worth and identity, often at the expense of others. Power relations was only one of those practices. Paul identified intellectual arrogance as another (see 1 Corinthians). Wealth, possessions, external appearance and other forms of status were also exposed for their inequitable, deceptive ways.
These are practices common to peoples of all cultures and backgrounds. They don't represent the reasonable characteristics necessary to preserve the uniqueness of a people from a particular culture. More importantly, they don't represent elements which are legitimate for the integrity of our true identity and for our dignity as the people of God. On the contrary, it is from these negative processes and the systems of inequality they produce which Christ has redeemed us. It is from the likes of these that Jesus calls (and prays for) us as his disciples to extricate ourselves in very specific ways. We are to take on a new identity which is foreign to the surrounding context, which is in conflict with the prevailing ways of the world, and which is--as our true identity--rooted in the oneness and love of God himself and, thus, which witnesses to a new life order.
The early disciples were vulnerable to these influences. They didn't quickly resolve all of the problems related to this issue, as their relations with Gentiles reflected. But they knew what was involved in being God's family, that if they didn't assume their true identity, what was at stake: the purpose Jesus extended to them as his Father's. To that end they remained obedient and faithful, working out their differences, being reconciled in their sins and jointly handling the extreme external pressures which bore upon them. Even in the aftermath of violence, they would not be intimidated to abdicate their identity (e.g., in Acts 14:19-22). The resilience of faith was consistently demonstrated by God's people throughout Acts. They would not reduce what they were; they kept growing in the confidence of their true identity and the conviction about whom to serve.
As Jesus prayed, all his followers need to actively work on being different from the world and not to embrace its ways of doing things. Yet, living as "alien residents" also comes with the responsibility to help reconcile the world to God's original purpose and plan. This engagement with the world cannot keep us as separatists or exilists without responsibility to this world, or to merely spiritualize the ministry of reconciliation. "To reveal the Father to the world" by extending Christ's mission, his followers need to establish essentially a culture of reconciliation in which the primacy of intimate relationships is restored. To do this they need to be active agents of reconciliation in the world while maintaining a church system not of the world. This is the identity distinguishing God's family for which Jesus prayed.
Certainly, to whatever extent the identity of who and what we are is rooted (directly or indirectly, explicitly or implicitly) in the negative processes of the surrounding context, then to that extent we will have problems living out our true identity as God's family. To take on this new and foreign identity creates conflict with alternative identities and often threatens what we've based our lives on--for example, security based on some aspect of power (social, economic or political), self-worth based on personal abilities or resources. These tensions bring out any resistance we have to this new identity as well as expose those areas of our everyday identity rooted in the prevailing reductionist paradigm of defining ourselves by what we do and have.
As we consider any dominant group influence on our identity as a Christian, we must examine the impact of Western influence on that identity. What the Western worldview does is root our identity in what we do, in the goals we accomplish, in our resources and in things. It is critical to understand the impact of this on our identity. As discussed earlier, Asian and Middle Eastern identities, in contrast, are defined more in terms of human relationships. Though those relationships may not be edifying ones, nevertheless these identities are still related to people and not to the impersonal indicators of modernity and Western thinking.
Consider the practice of many churches. Their priorities tend to get focused on how many (e.g., members, attendance), how much (e.g., achievements, offerings, budget), how long (e.g., experience, longevity, seniority) and the primary focus on methodology. This is the use of a reductionist paradigm and is mainly about quantity, not about quality. When Jesus observed "church" (temple) practice, he singled out a poor widow during the offering collection (Mk 12:41-44). She gave all she had (Gk. bios, the goods for living), but this wasn't about the quantity of "all she had." Bios was secondary to her because there was something more important: the quality of zoe in her relationship with God and giving all her heart to him. What distinguished the other givers was the prevailing quantitative practice, that is, the common. What distinguished her was the qualitative difference of the Uncommon, that is, the heart and intimate relational nature of God. He does not measure amount, life, us, the church by a reductionist paradigm of quantity. This practice is not of God.
When a Christian identity incorporates a Western worldview, the true identity of God's people becomes an entangled, complex problem. To distinguish between the legitimate and illegitimate elements of that identity can involve emotional debate and issues of socio-political ideology just as much as, and maybe even more than, matters of theology. The white Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa was a specific example of this kind of insidious process which legitimated the systematic oppression of blacks, including black Christians.
This process operates less blatantly in various ways throughout the world, especially in the United States, since it is the guardian of democracy and the Western world. Christian identity is held as synonymous with many elements of Western culture and worldview, and so the influence and dominating factors shaping our identity are pervasive.
Unless Christian identity is uprooted from such prevailing determinants, the true identity of God's family cannot clearly distinguish itself. In this system identity formation and maintenance become increasingly dependent on alternative sources to determine what it should be or do, whether it is OK, or how it should live. This process puts the Christian identity essentially under the control of, for example, a social context.
An identity which looks to outside sources for its affirmation is an identity shaped into the design of someone else. This is experienced at various levels of life. On the societal level, the process of assimilation into a society can create this problem. In this process we seek to establish a place for ourselves in the society while usually taking an uncritical approach to the society's consensus values and practices (established ways of doing things). Assimilation breeds this uncritical approach particularly in minority peoples. As alien residents, for God's people to live without critique leaves them very susceptible to compromise. This may result in a compromised position (knowingly or inadvertently for the Christian) of trying to make it and be accepted (in effect establish one's identity) according to the social criteria of a value system subtly in conflict with the Scriptures.
Paul strongly warns us against such compromise, assimilation and an uncritical mind-set which leave us with an ambiguous or shallow identity unable to distinguish what is of God (Gk. syschematizo, conform vs. metamorphoo, transform, in Rom 12:2). In U.S. society identity formation becomes a complex problem because various elements of this society are misperceived to be anointed by God or synonymous with being his. Consequently, the emergence of the true identity of God's people as alien residents is problematic; for some in this society even the suggestion of a "true identity" may be considered non-Christian and probably be labeled as radical or even subversive.
The process of assimilation compounds the problem further. Uncritical participation in this process reduces the opportunity for Jesus' followers to achieve an independent function not tied directly to society's control. In this way assimilation effectively becomes a legitimated means to control the presence and function of God's people. This suggests Satan's encouragement of us to assimilate into the prevailing context.
For Christians to embrace this process is to allow our identity to be shaped into the design of the world--in this case the design of the dominant group of this society. This has been exactly the experience of minority peoples in this country; but, then, we need to understand that the process of assimilation is designed exactly for this purpose by the dominant group. Yet, for the followers of Christ, as a minority people alien to the world, we are always faced with this dilemma: to emerge or submerge.
Historically, with slight variation, this has been the process used on Christians, for example, in the past in the Philippines, South Korea and more recently in mainland China. The presence and function of God's people have been systematically controlled by the government. As long as Christian activity promoted nationalism in those countries and did not interfere with government policies, then Christianity was encouraged or allowed. In this way Christians had even been used in the past to legitimize injustices in the Philippines and in South Korea.
Along with constraining or even altering the true Christian identity, this process confounds the issue about whom to serve. Who is going to be served in this: myself, society, the dominant group, God or someone or something else we set up in place of him? Under these conditions how does a Christian have confidence in his/her identity and conviction about whom to serve? The issues Jesus raised about the light and the salt become more urgent in these circumstances.
At other times the external influence on Christian identity is not so complete. The formation and maintenance of identity are often a somewhat "schizophrenic" operation for many Christians. This is the dual or split personality type who tries to maintain or integrate conflicting identities. This is an experience similar to what other minority peoples experience in a process I call "bifocal identity": the formation and maintenance of conflicting identities into a singular system of practice like bifocal glasses where one identity is used for general areas (usually more public and secondary) and the other identity used for closer, private areas (deeper and primary).
The closer private areas of our life bring out another level of life where Christian identity is often shaped by another's design. This can happen when and where we depend on extraneous sources for our affirmation or to legitimate our life. The most obvious source for this affirmation is our biological family. Relationships with other "significant others" along life's journey can create other sources. Any relationship we depend on for affirmation or legitimation becomes an important context of influence or control on our identity.
For example, for a Christian to depend on the biological family for the primary affirmation of his/her identity opens the door for the family's determination of how that person will be. Though parental influence is well-known, much of this control often is subtle or indirect. This especially involves the influence on or even control of one's deeper Christian identity.
The dynamic at work here is that dependence on extraneous sources for affirmation or legitimation generates loyalty in that relationship. That loyalty makes us susceptible to compromise our own beliefs and desires. The attachments these relationships engender then determine our priorities in life. The guilt, for example, produced in the children when they don't meet family expectations is one of the concrete indicators of family influence or control. When this kind of loyalty is confused with primary Christian duty, it also confounds the issue about whose we are and thus whom to serve. Therefore, in any situation where willful dependence on extraneous sources for affirmation and legitimation exists, Christian identity can be expected to be shaped into another's design.
The identity of God's family transcends nationalism, ethnocentrism or any other association and relationship which would reduce its presence and function in the world. At the same time this identity does not deny the unique aspects of a people or person--aspects which do not take away from the true identity as the Father's nor subordinate it in a dual identity. While affirming those aspects which meaningfully enhance the uniqueness of a people in the surrounding context, this new identity as God's people still demonstrates a substance and truth against which the world reacts. More specifically, the reaction will come from those who uphold negative processes of a prevailing context, or from those who are avoiding dealing with (or admitting their) sin.
Even in contexts where strong efforts at control or intimidation are made, even in the face of violence, the substance and truth of God's people can distinctly emerge. As Jesus shared in his farewell discourse to his disciples just prior to his farewell prayer, there are three realities about his family which he juxtaposes with three other conditions characterizing the world. First, in relation to feelings of distress he counters with his peace; the reality about his family is that there is peace in us, that is wholeness, well-being, reconciliation with God through Christ, no matter what else is happening (John 14). Then, in relation to the hate and violence of the world, he counters with his love; the reality about his family is that we are intimately loved, we have love and, thus, can share love--bearing witness to our true identity (John 15). Lastly, Jesus identifies the world as his antagonist and sets himself up to redeem it; the reality about his family is that we are his own, privileged to share in what is his and no longer having to be controlled or intimidated by the world because he has overcome it (John 16).
The early disciples lived this out with both an eschatological worldview and a functional relational presence in the realities of the surrounding context. They took to heart not only Jesus' words but faithfully received the new realities about their lives brought about by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and now extended by his Spirit. Consequently, their true identity as God's family distinctly emerged in spite of antagonistic contexts, situations or adverse conditions because of the following factors:
(1) their identity was predicated on the miracle of the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus Christ;
(2) their identity was rooted in the intimacy of their relationship with the Father, as his very own;
(3) their identity formation was enabled by the Holy Spirit;
(4) their identity was supported by and interdependently belonged to the whole of God's people as family in the organic body of Christ.
Without minimizing the importance of the other factors I want to emphasize the fourth factor here. The identity of God's people is not to be individualized; it is a corporate identity. But there is a practical reason to point this out also. We cannot identify some inner strength of the early disciples that enabled them to live confidently in their true identity and with the strong conviction about whom to serve. Also, it would be an overstatement that they lived as such solely because of the power of the Holy Spirit working within each of them as individuals. The crucial factor to realize here about the transformed church is that the everyday working relational process of their shared life together enabled them to grow in this confidence of what they were and this conviction of whom they served.
How vital it is for God's people to be joined together in this way. In their shared life together they care for each other corporately and they embrace their identity corporately. It is this certain structure (interdependent relationships) and the process of this particular kind of relationship (intimate involvement) which cannot be underestimated. The support and synergism of the transformed church are absolutely indispensable in order to grow in, to maintain and to extend the true identity of God's family in the world. This is the purpose in Jesus' farewell prayer. Within this petition to the Father, the unity and the ongoing intimate involvement of his followers are emphasized in order for God's family to fulfill their purpose in love by demonstrating the truth of the gospel and to reveal the Father to the world.
It is this identity, both in substance and in form, which distinguishes God's people and will determine how they will live and what their mission will be in the world.
These special and distinct aspects of God's family also involve the issue of redemption. We further need to understand how redemption functions for our integrity as God's people and for distinguishing the practice of the church.
The church cannot turn to prevailing common sources (e.g., market analyses, corporate business practices, public relations, therapeutic models, even Gallup or Barna surveys) for how to be the church and expect to distinguish itself as God's family. To be of any relational significance to God the church must rely on the practices of Christ and the gathering of his early disciples in Acts.
Turning to prevailing common sources tends to enslave churches. This is true however "successful" the results may seem, whatever gains appear to have been made. Almost all methods, techniques, models for doing church come with their success stories. This was even true for the early church. Despite facing what was probably intense persecution, by the end of the first century the Christian church was establishing itself. This was not, however, without internal problems involving its identity and redemption. In Revelations 2 and 3, John records a revelation to various churches (in what is now Turkey) about their struggles, in particular holding some accountable for having made compromises. This part of Revelations could easily have been written to churches today.
There seems to be an observable pattern: as churches get established their source of influence tends to shift. That is, in the early development of churches, it is their religious belief system which is the predominant factor in their legitimation. Yet, as a church establishes itself, there is a tendency for the socio-cultural belief systems of the surrounding context in which the church is located to implicitly replace (functionally, not doctrinally) the religious belief system as the most influential source guiding that institution. Sometimes this shift takes place more openly. For example, look at the quantitative model for success many churches utilize today; where does it come from? Although usually done with good intentions for the sake of the gospel (or at least to be more contextually relevant), where does the church receive many of its cues for its programming, or program modes?
To critique this is not to eliminate the use of secular resource developments and better techniques. Even in the so-called information age with its evolving technology, Paul's critique remains relevant, both for the individual and for churches: "while knowledge may make us feel important [relevant or acceptable], it is love that really builds up the church" (1 Cor 8:1, NLT). There are crucial issues to keep in perspective here, not the least of which is the issue of what means are used and whose end is sought. Like the "successful" churches John records in Ephesus (which lost its relational significance) and in Sardis (which had illusions about its popular reputation), many church operations cannot be distinguished together with Jesus in the incarnation and with his followers in Acts.
Unfortunately, churches are often found coexisting with the prevailing context, essentially maintaining a distinct identity merely on narrow moral grounds, doctrinal purity or merely on the general social classification of religion. In these conditions a church's operation does not bear witness to the distinct relational character essential for the fulfillment of its God-given purpose and commission in the world.
This distinct relational character involves redemption and includes the holiness and righteousness of God's people. Paul discusses righteousness and holiness as conjoined (Eph 4:24, used together in the NT only here and in Lk 1:75), and they need to be understood relationally for practice in the new life order. "Righteousness" (Gk. dikaiosyne) fulfills God's claims on us and conforms to his authority, or essentially to be like God. It is an opposite of lawlessness (anomia), which essentially is doing whatever one chooses to do. Dikaiosyne denotes this right inner relation outwardly expressed in relationship to others. This means to relate to others as God relates--with heart and love, as Paul has been discussing in Ephesians 4 (cf. Mt 5:48). To have righteousness has no other alternative for relationship.
"Holiness" (Gk. hosiotes) is related more to keeping of ordinances than to character of life (hagiotes). Holiness or piety is seen relationally in carrying out sacred duties as "piety toward God," having integrity and fidelity in our relationship with him, and thus denotes fulfilling the responsibilities which come with being intimately joined with God. To practice holiness requires separation from common usage and prevailing ways (Eph 4:22; cf. 1 Pet 1:15, 16). In both holiness and righteousness, the new person in Christ can't claim to be new and then present one's self in relationship with others (the practice of righteousness) in ways, for example, which are convenient, easier or whatever level of involvement one chooses. To have an intimate relationship with God requires heart and comes with relational responsibilities (the practice of holiness) to live with God as God lives and to relate to others as God relates.
This distinct relational process of holiness and righteousness also involves the matter of sin and evil. Paul insisted that we address this matter to help us understand the prevailing influences it can have on our lives, and to discontinue the subtle substitutes and compromises made for the new life order (Eph 4:17-19). It is ironic that on a matter the church would be expected to hold the strongest position--against sin and evil--it is often found weak. Whether due to an incomplete understanding of the scope of evil, an inadequate perspective of the nature of sin or a limited view of God, a church's weak position directly influences the nature, degree and extent of its witness to others, not to mention its ministry to its own.
What distinguishes his
church is family. But a church cannot function as the family of God
without living as sons and daughters. That is, we can't be a
functioning daughter or son while living in enslavement to
something; Peter says we are slaves to whatever masters us
This means it is vital for all churches to understand their enslavements and to work with its members for redemption. If we are not redeemed from prevailing influences and transformed to the new life order, we cannot expect to function truly as his family (cf. 2 Cor 6:17-18). Understanding our enslavements is not merely a spiritual exercise.
One might say, maybe with a certain degree of validity, that it's a lot harder to deal with sin and evil today than in the age of the early church. To the extent that this is true, two factors heavily contribute to this condition. One factor is contextual and the other is structural. They operate separately and in combination. The church today needs to understand these operations if it expects to be distinguished in its practice.
The contextual factor is the increasing normative character of sin. This is well illustrated by a cartoon from years ago which I vividly recall. The scene takes place in hell where a junior demon is consulting a senior demon about his work on earth. The former is a little confused about human behavior and asks the senior: "If they're all doing it, is it still sin?"
Of course, in the Screwtape tradition of C. S. Lewis, we can imagine the senior demon's response would be something like: "Well, it sure is, but don't let them know that--let them think it's OK."
Without going into detail about specific contexts producing this kind of effect, we need to realize that the growing frequency and extent of any negative behavior or practice create conditions for redefining those more favorably. And our perceptions of what is unacceptable are being redefined continuously--some for better but mainly for worse. With the relativism of a postmodern context or in a climate of blanket tolerance, distinguishing sin and evil becomes even more difficult. This process can also be seen as a reaction to forms of Christian legalism with its rigidity and dependence on constraints--particularly reactions from less conservative Christians. In this process Christian liberty is exercised, and somewhat abused, in a manner influenced more by its social context than its redeemed nature and purpose.
The other factor which heavily contributes to a weak position on sin and evil is a structural one. Being a structural factor, its effects on our understanding of, and subsequent dealing with, sin and evil are much less obvious than the common moral and spiritual issues. In understanding that life is not merely operating under the total control or influence of the individual, there are broader operations which must be taken into account. These are found on the more systemic level of everyday life.
It is in this area that our understanding of sin and evil must be further developed--both for the outworking of our own life together as God's family and for the application of our faith in fulfilling God's purpose and commission in the world.
Sin or evil can no longer be seen merely as the outworking only of the individual(s). It can also be found in the operations of institutions, systems and structures of a society, or the global community. In its more developed stages evil is not only manifested at this structural level but rooted in those very institutions, systems or structures such that they can operate quite apart from the control of the individual, or even the latter's moral character. This is especially true, for example, when the very infrastructure of a society obscures moral issues and legitimates such systemic operations.
Evidence of this process in U.S. society has been found historically, for example, in the development of racism from the level of individuals' prejudice to the systemic level known as institutional racism. Contrary to common understanding, at this systemic level you don't need prejudice or racist intentions to have institutional discrimination. Such an operation, in fact, could be run by well-intentioned persons but still produce the outcome of racism. Complicity with discrimination could also be unintentional on the part of any person directly or indirectly involved.
Jacques Ellul commented back in the mid-20th century about such a systemic process: "A major fact of our present civilization is that more and more sin becomes collective, and the individual is forced to participate in collective sin." This process continues today in increasing global conditions which broaden and compound our participation in sin and evil. Child labor and slave-like factory practices, for example, which would not be tolerated in the U.S. become tolerable overseas to serve U.S. consumer interests.
The net effect of this structural factor on Christians is the responsibility for directly or indirectly propagating sin and evil by either knowingly or unknowingly being in complicity with the operation of such an institution, system or structure. Of course, it should be clearly understood also that this collective nature of sin does not take away the individual's accountability for sin and evil. But it does reveal the extensive reality of sin and evil and the church's need to address their full scope, both for the church's own transformation and for its redemptive purpose in the world.
The development of the church's purpose in actual practice is directly related to the strength of its position against sin and evil. In prevailing conditions, the normative character of sin and the collective nature of evil interact to confuse us of the presence of sin and evil, to distort its operation in everyday life and to create illusions about the benefits of its results. All the harm which has been incurred for the sake of "progress" is a prime example of this consequence. Yet, despite these conditions it is really immaterial whether it is more difficult to deal with sin and evil today than before.
When Jesus told his Father in the prayer for his followers that "they are yours," in a sense he was making some assumptions. Technically, since Jesus had not gone to the cross yet, he had not paid the ransom to secure their liberation from bondage as a slave to sin--that is, to be redeemed. Relationally, he was also assuming that his followers would not live in any enslavement, but would ongoingly function as his Father's daughters and sons. These were valid assumptions because Jesus did redeem them and reconcile them to his Father as his very own. But he does not assume that they can function as daughters and sons and can be distinguished as his Father's family while participating in the prevailing context without a qualitative practice against sin and evil--including normative and collective. That would be a totally invalid assumption, which conventional Christian wisdom erroneously tends to make.
In Paul's letter to Titus, he gives Titus the charge to restore the new life order to the church in Crete. The primary thrust of Paul's focus is on the need to distinguish themselves from the prevailing beliefs and practices (even religious ones) and to be redeemed from doing whatever they choose (anomia) in order to be purified for God to be "a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good" (Tit 2:14). "Good" should not be confused with a quantitative list of constraints or deeds; the term (Gk. kalos) means good, beautiful as to quality and character--that is, that which reflects him and being his.
The church in holiness is called to be rigorous in doing good. But the purpose of this practice is not for the church to show itself righteous. This distinct character of the church serves not its image in the community but its distinct function to bring the hope of redemption to those who are engaged in, controlled by or otherwise affected by evil and sin.
demonstrated throughout his incarnation about his purpose, the
church also is not here to be served by its practices (Mt 20:28).
Its practices serve; and like Jesus, the church serves by
giving itself over to the redemptive purpose of God. Just as Jesus
incarnated the redemptive means and plan of his Father to rescue all
from "the present evil age"
The church incarnates redemption by how it lives. Since redemption effectively involves liberation from some enslavement, the reality of redemption made flesh in our lives is reflected by our decreasing participation in sin and evil. Yet, God's people cannot witness merely to a redemption totally in the spiritual sphere, the outcome of which is only in the future. This redemption from sin and evil can and must be indicated in how we live ongoingly in distinction from the prevailing context.
At the same time the church incarnates redemption by how it lives in and to the world. Now, more than being the objects of Christ's redemptive work on the cross, God's people need to live as subjects in the redemptive process--which includes both what Christ saved us from and what he saved us to. That is, God's people actively serve as agents of redemption and reconciliation, bearing the hope of the new life order both by clearly demonstrating God's grace through Christ and in the visible results of God's redemptive work of reconciliation witnessed in the everyday lives of his people as family. This function effectively as salt and light is done not shallowly in relation to sin and evil, nor by an ambiguous presence to areas of sin and evil but by initiating loving confrontation of all its manifestations. As mentioned in Chapter 10, redemption and reconciliation are not mere propositional truths. These are indeed also the relational realities forming both the model for our other relationships as well as the experiential base on which to build these relationships.
Doing good has little meaning or significant value apart from this redemptive process. Yet, for distinguishing redemption it is necessary to grasp: the issue of redemption is predicated on our understanding of sin and evil. If we perceive it in limited moral terms and/or "spiritualize" all aspects of sin and evil, the tendency will be to deal with it only for the individual, in the spiritual realm and for the future. On the other hand, if we perceive sin and evil merely as external behaviors of humanity and/or only in terms of social, economic, political operations without an underlying sinful human nature, the tendency will be to overly humanize Christ's redemptive work or universalize the outcome of the gospel's promise of new life.
Whatever the variations of these perspectives, there is a direct association of our understanding of sin and evil with how we, as Christians, function in the world. Therefore, our position on sin and evil is crucial in the development of Christian practice, both individual and corporate, and the action we feel responsible to take. And, generally, the most prevalent position taken by Christians can be described as weak.
Having said this, the process of incarnating redemption always needs to be qualified by the relational context and process vulnerably established by Jesus. We cannot be fixated on responding to sin. That effort can become an ethical task somewhat as an end in itself. As much as God hates sin, that is not the purpose of his family. The purpose of this redemptive process is entirely about relationship. For this reason the work of redemption should never be separated from the work of reconciliation.
The process of this relational purpose always establishes the whole person and intimate relationship as the most important priority. The redemptive process must (dei, by its nature) emerge within this relational context. Of course, the ultimate priority here is the person(s) of God and intimate relationship together. When Mary's anointing of Jesus was disputed as wasted resources which should be given to the poor, Jesus put our purpose into the deeper perspective of God's big picture (Jn 12:7-8). The effects of sin (e.g., the poor) will always exist in this unredeemed context. The priority above responding to those important issues is him, God's person, and responding to him. He, and intimate relationship with him, is always the most important purpose and action in which we can engage. And just as he has this special and distinct importance, his followers will be important (particularly to his Father, as Jesus prayed) beyond any of our deeds, situations or circumstances. This is how God designed life; such are the priorities of the new life order and the practice which distinguish being his and his family.
The warmth and sensitivity of the apostle John in his first epistle also reveal strong opposition to such a weak position on sin and evil. "If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk [continue to participate] in the [processes of] darkness, we lie and do not live by the truth" (1 Jn 1:6). Fellowship is one of John's main points in this epistle, which by definition (as discussed in Chap. 10) involves having a shared interest, sharing something in common, sharing in it together, implying inner relationships between its participants.
Fellowship is the corporate relational context and process basic to the incarnation of Jesus and the relational progression to the Father, which John experienced intimately (1 Jn 1:1-4). For him, fellowship with God and with other Christians was not just an objective truth but this intimate relational experience. Characteristic of his heart-level approach to discipleship this fellowship was not something which could be reduced from this relational process. The presence of authentic fellowship, for example, is not a label put on church activities, a category of church programming or the status of a group. In relational function, fellowship is at the heart of the life of God's family--whether in the worship or the service of their Lord. Nothing can substitute for true fellowship and nothing less than it should ever be settled for. All those other efforts in the church make any semblance of fellowship in Christ counterfeit.
Reductionism and its counterfeit replacements are ongoing issues which are critical to address. This is why John dealt so strongly with sin and evil, whether in relation to the early form of Gnosticism or any other prevailing influences. The antagonist to authentic fellowship is sin. In other words, relationships in the church always suffer harm from the presence of sin--not in the common perception of brokenness but in relational distance. Sin reduces the whole person by distancing us from our heart, and it creates a process of direct or indirect deception in relationships as a substitute for intimate connections. Direct is knowingly being deceptive; indirect is not being aware of the use of deception to disguise one's true self, whether from being exposed, to avoid being held accountable, or because of the fear of deeper relationship. This is the reason forgiveness is such an indispensable practice for church life.
There has been valid concern within the Christian community about the influence of secularism. Yet, the major perception of secularization (at least among conservative church leaders) is seen in the theological areas of the gospel. This concern needs to be broadened to include all of its biblically contrary influences. I even suggest that the more primary issue involves the influence of reducing how the person is now defined--by what they do or have--and how our practice of relationships has substituted for intimacy, and how this secularization of God's design and purpose has permeated how we practice church. If church practice in effect reproduces many of the dominant values and practices of the surrounding context, then that church has been secularized as well as institutionalized socially. This constrains the function of the church by defining its practice more and more according to the prevailing context.
Individualism is the most significant element of secularism that the Western church has failed to adequately address. The reduction of the corporate identity of God's people as his new kinship family has left these local churches struggling to be distinguished in function from any other community organization in the surrounding context. Despite any of its pronouncements, this failure to establish the individual into the relational context as a functional part of the whole of God has left us with a truncated soteriology. That is, individualism in soteriology only addresses and deals with what we are essentially saved from. When our soteriological practice includes what we are saved to, then our theological focus must address and deal with sanctification and ecclesiology as equally important. This engages discipleship in following Jesus distinctly in the relational progression to the Father, intimately establishing us as his very own.
The relational progression involves the complete Christology on which our ecclesiology must be constructed in order to be distinguished as being his and his family. When this corporate identity is reduced to the individual and when individual priorities substitute for the priority of his new family, then the church's distinction becomes lost in secularization. This practice leaves churches susceptible to two further reductionist alternatives: (1) the tendency for masquerade, and (2) the mythologizing of relationships.
In the process of reduction the most prominent shift taking place is observed in our focus from the qualitative to the quantitative. In human interaction the perception and concern for what is quantitative increasingly becomes focused on outward aspects of behavior, such as how it appears, its form, image or merely the idea of it, for example, as virtual realities provide. This certainly replaces the qualitative aspects of inner substance which gives significance to the behavior.
In order to compensate for the absence of inner substance, what is displayed outwardly must simulate that substance as close as possible. This process of simulation is what the Bible calls "masquerade" (Gk. metaschematizo, to take on or change the outward form or appearance without the inner change).
Simulation in the church is a critical issue, even in the early church as Paul addressed in the Corinthian gathering (2 Cor 11:13-15). The integrity of what we present of our self to each other, the validity and meaningfulness of the content of our communication, as well as the level of relationship being engaged, all come into question in any presence of simulation. When masquerade is not addressed, it is outwardly nearly impossible to distinguish what is authentic. Given that Satan himself masquerades as an angel of light and his servants masquerade as servants of righteousness, church practice based on a reductionist paradigm leaves the church susceptible to falsehood and becomes extremely critical to deal with--as we discussed in particular in Chapter 4 as a substitute for inner change (metamorphoo).
Yet, the issue here does not involve necessarily our theological beliefs as much as our relational practice. The quantitative focus by which we often do church--that is, in actual function minimizing the heart and misperceiving intimate relationship--is susceptible. But this susceptibility is not as much to doctrinal impurity as it is to masquerade. In Christ's critique of the church in Ephesus, he acknowledged their effort in exposing false apostles (Rev 2:2). Yet, the quantity of hard work and dedication in difficult situations still was not enough to compensate for the lack of qualitative substance. That quality was about relationship--intimate relational involvement with God and each other, which was replaced by the quantitative concern for doctrine, ministry and missions. None of that was able to simulate the qualitative difference of God--the substance of which is heart (his being as God of heart) and intimate relationship (his nature as intimately relational).
The simulation of this inner substance is not a "hot issue" in the Christian community today because it doesn't create cognitive dissonance in our quantitative perceptual framework as theological apostasy and immorality do. This reflects the influence of the prevailing context and the secularization of how we define ourselves, do relationships and do church. Furthermore, the fact that we can practice masquerade (often unknowingly and even with good intentions) and not hold each other accountable for more substance is in effect to practice relational deception and, thus, falsehood in being his and his family. These kinds of relationships do not represent the Father. I suggest that this reductionist alternative needs to be addressed with more urgency than any other issue facing the church today. The integrity of our identity and the validity of our fellowship depend on it.
Compensating for the lack of substance is further pursued by another reductionist alternative: mythologizing relationships. This is primarily the effort to create illusions to compensate for the lack of experiential reality in relationships. Myth-making, if you wish, has been common practice, for example, in marriages where a spouse overstates the positive attributes of the other spouse or the experiences in the relationship. Sometimes these illusions help couples get through difficult periods in marriage. Yet, illusions create a false sense of what actually exists and they prevent a deeper reality from being experienced.
Churches seem to be talking about relationships more, some even making it a priority. I suspect that much of this emphasis still remains within the quantitative perceptual framework of the prevailing reductionist influences. These predispositions, biases and mind-set tend to use the same vocabulary for relationships (such as intimacy, love, community) but in actual function their vocabulary doesn't come with the inner experience. It connotes quantitative activity, not qualitative involvement.
This lack of experiential reality is particularly notable in relation to God's love. Probably no greater Christian testimony or witness is expressed than about his love. Yet, how much of this can be attributed to mythologizing God's love? Any such myth-making does not alter the truth that God does in fact love us, but that Christian talk about his love is often without any relational significance and thus lacks experiential reality. The language of love, relationship and intimacy may be there but not the experience of those words. The conventional Christian forms may be present but not the substance behind them. They become like the illusions of a spouse overstating the positive attributes of the other or the experiences in the relationship. And, of course, with this predisposition, even bias and mind-set, there is more ascribed to God or interpreted about his actions than his actual involvement validates--his grace and love notwithstanding. Even when associated with propositional truth, such illusions (e.g., about some answers to prayer) only serve to obstruct the relationship from deeper experiential reality.
When Jesus was describing the end days among his followers, he said "because of the increase in wickedness, the love of most will grow cold" (Mt 24:12). "Wickedness" (Gk. anomia) is the opposite of righteousness and means lawlessness--which essentially is doing whatever one chooses to do, which effectively is similar to the practice of individualism today. In this context Christian love will "grow cold" (Gk. psycho, grow cold in a spiritual sense); that is, love will lack inner substance, not necessarily be absent in outward forms, appearance or the idea of it. In other words, the experience of love will diminish because of what is practiced. With these conditions (which are similar to what we face today), the most susceptible course Christians may take is to compensate for this lack by mythologizing relationships. It is always more comforting to believe something exists than to feel the lack. The paradox of this is that this reductionist alternative is exercised as a substitute for faith as relational trust.
This reductionist alternative becomes especially useful in church relations. Myth-making functions not always to gloss over difficulties or to avoid conflicts; but in such situations it can serve to minimize deeper encounters. One area where this is observed involves forgiveness. Christians generally have in their minds to forgive; that this is the Christian thing to do and they just have to do it. Basically, that is often where our forgiveness comes from--the level of our mind. Because forgiveness is what God wants, we do it in spite of what we may be feeling. Such forgiveness is actually more problematic for relationships than none at all. This is not the level of God's forgiveness of us nor how he wants us to forgive. Valid forgiveness has to come from the heart; we also have to receive his forgiveness in our heart for its relational reality. In this process the heart needs to be attended to for forgiveness to be possible. Whether we are the forgiver or being forgiven, in this relational process our heart has to be vulnerably involved for there to be a dying to the old and a rising of the new (as discussed earlier about authentic forgiveness in Chap.10).
Yet, what passes for forgiveness in many of our relationships is often only an illusion of this experiential reality. By intentionally or inadvertently practicing this reductionist alternative, we minimize having to deal with the deeper aspects of relationships involving the level of our hearts. This only prevents the experience of more intimate relational reality between us, both with God and each other.
As we hear more church discussion about the need for relationships and about being community, we must account for any tendency to masquerade and the presence of myths in our practice. The normative practices of simulation and living with illusion in the prevailing context must not define how we see the person and engage in relationships, thus ultimately practice church. We cannot fully come together and be joined together in deep meaningful relationships unless they are established at the level of our hearts. In this sense reconciliation is not the same thing as harmony. Reconciliation involves the intimacy of equitable relationships--coming together and sharing together at the heart level, for which there is no simulation or illusion. Harmony could reflect anything ranging from a mutual coexistence to a cooperative agreement or structure based on practical functions or roles but not necessarily include deeper interpersonal relationships. Such harmony can be witnessed in many marriages and families today, and on a larger scale seen in an industrialized society's division of labor. Harmony is easier for relationships than reconciliation, and masquerade and myth in such relations are common practice, arguably a necessity. But for transformed individuals and the transformed church, mere harmony is never sufficient either for their own life together or their purpose in the world. Jesus gives us a qualitative different substance from what the world gives (Jn 14:27).
Reductionist influences diminish the qualitative difference of God's people to an ambiguous function and shallow practice. Whether breaking down the whole of God, reducing the whole person, constraining God's design and purpose for relationships, minimizing quality and inner substance in life, or even eliminating faith, reductionist practices take something away from what is authentic and replace it with a counterfeit substitute. If a church's identity as God's family of alien residents is not to be co-opted by a reductionist process--shaping it, for example, as another social institution among others, or assimilating its members into a prevailing context--then church practice must make more explicit and heighten its conflict with reductionism and must be true to the redemptive process. For Western churches the most prominent area to address is the influence and control of individualism. Nothing appears to be more urgent for the issue of Christian identity and the ramifications of redemption in our life.
The individual Christian alone is capable of only a limited witness to the meaning and direction of God's redemptive plan for all humanity and history. In understanding the Father's redemptive action--specifically in the relational progression of his Son's incarnation--we can see beyond his deep desire to redeem us from evil. His deeper desire for us is evident in the Father's desire to take us in and establish us as his daughter, son--that is, as his very own and fully as his family (Gal 4:5-7; Tit 2:14). This is what Jesus saved us to, which the individual alone cannot completely express. We also cannot witness to what we are not participating in as an experiential reality. What we are saved to can only be the full witness of the transformed church; this really needs to be the main witness of the church, not what we are saved from. "What we are saved from" by itself does not necessarily imply what we are saved to. The latter, however, always involves being transformed from what we are saved from. When our witness is primarily focused on the "from" aspect of salvation, we engage in a reductionist practice that takes away from God's deeper desires for us.
Fundamentally, then, God's redemptive action was: to reach out to us, pay the cost for the release from our plight or condition, take us into his own household and clean us, heal us, make us whole and, then, make us a part of his very own family by adopting us with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of his children. In its pure essence, this is the ultimate relational process of family love, as we discussed earlier.
Family love is the love which Jesus Christ incarnated with the relational progression, made us the objects of and, consequently, led to our place in God's family as his very own. Family love is the meaning and direction of God's redemptive plan and his desires for all humankind in all history. Family love is the love which defines God's purpose and the calling for his people. By its very nature, family love cannot be fully communicated or expressed by only the individual, regardless of how well that individual functions. Family love is not only about heart and about intimate relationships but about intimate interdependent relationships functioning together ongoingly as his family. No individual alone and no number of individuals can simulate the family love of God's people. Individualism is the qualitative opposite of this love and can only be in conflict with it.
Family love further defines for us the new command Jesus gave his followers and operationalizes the agape involvement which distinguishes us as his (Jn 13:34-35). Agape involvement as family love not only demonstrates to others that we are Christ's followers but it also shows we are the Father's sons and daughters. Agape signifies the nature of God (as intimately relational) and how he is involved with us. And his love, nature and involvement with us is an extension of how the Godhead is within itself. Since Jesus incarnated this relational progression in the function of family love, whatever is distinctly about the Son is about his Father and his Spirit. Family love clearly distinguishes the agape involvement Jesus had with his followers; and how he has loved us is how he wants us to love each other. This is the practice which distinguishes us as the Father's.
The new kinship family of God's people is a present relational reality (whether or not synonymous with his kingdom), which in the practice of the transformed church embodies this family love. Above all of its pronouncements and doctrinal positions, the church witnesses to the redemptive meaning and hope in Christ by sharing this profound love both among themselves and with others in the world. This is where redemption becomes incarnated for the needy, the dispossessed, the sinner, the sinned against. Family love is where the Truth is experienced as relational connection of the heart and intimately known.
As John starts out his
first epistle he seems somewhat strained, or at a loss for words
Clearly, this holy fellowship is the relational outcome of the redemptive work of Christ which transforms us to be a people as his very own (1 Jn 1:7). This family love of God can rightfully and by necessity only be lived out and experienced in the corporate life of the transformed church. Family love is what distinguishes God's people, the church.
This is the direction and hope the church gives to human history by living out its own life in family love. The consistent witness throughout human history is that sin and evil reduce, separate, alienate, wound and lead to darkness and death. Family love, however, reaches out in relational connection, takes into God's household, heals, reconciles and restores to whole as a part of God's very own family. In this process of family love, the church offers and models the relational and systemic processual context for human life, as well as the means to live it. In this the church becomes distinguished as the light and the salt, as the Father's.
As we follow Jesus in the relational progression, this necessitates being involved in the redemptive process. Redemption is the Father's deep desire vulnerably enacted by his Son "to reconcile to himself all things . . . by making peace through his blood shed on the cross" (Col 1:20). To join him in this redemptive process God intimately shared his own Spirit to be with his people. The relational outcome was the raising up of his church--the transformed fellowship of transformed persons living transformed relationships with family love.
Therefore, in the practice of discipleship, the redemptive outcome for God's people and his church precludes taking liberties with participation in any form of evil and to operationalize a strong position against sin and evil. The redemptive conclusion for us necessitates taking liberty in being agents of redemption and reconciliation, incarnating family love, paying whatever necessary costs to bring it to others and, thus, living out in ongoing relational trust who and what we together are in Jesus Christ and as his Father's.
As discipleship integrates intimate relationship with the holy God (spirituality) with the community of intimate interdependent relationships as his holy family, discipleship is ultimately distinguished by operationalizing the practice of family love.
How the transformed church further operationalizes family love is the focus of discussion in the next two chapters.
Contemplate being his very own and being his family, along with family love, and then making substitutes for this and settling for less. What does your theology define and your practice distinguish?
 Jacques Ellul, The Presence of the Kingdom (New York: Seabury Press, 1967), 13.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.
©2004 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.