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The Person, the Trinity, the Church
The Person, the Trinity, the Church
The Church in Likeness of the Trinity
Incompatibility of Church Practice
For trinitarian theology to be consistent with the whole of God it must involve the trinitarian relational context of family. Such theology does not merely inform us about God but provides the framework to truly know God, be ongoingly involved with the trinitarian persons as family and to build God’s family together. This is the function of Jesus’ familial prayer for all his followers (Jn 17).
For us to be consistent with this trinitarian theology is to engage the trinitarian relational context of the whole of God, which is the family of God. Such engagement is necessarily both as an individual and as the collective of Christ’s followers called the church. The individual alone is never sufficient to define the trinitarian relational context nor to represent the whole of God (just as each trinitarian person alone cannot)—a human condition at creation directly involving our tendency today “to be apart” (Gen 2:18).
Likewise, for us to be compatible in practice with this trinitarian theology and thus in function with the trinitarian relational context of family also necessitates direct involvement in the trinitarian relational process of family love. The intimate relational involvement of family love is how the Trinity functions with each other (roles notwithstanding) and how the trinitarian persons do relationship with us in vulnerably extending themselves to us. The whole of God is the family of trinitarian persons in triunity. The Trinity qua family only functions in the intimate interdependent relationships of family love just as the Son incarnated and the Spirit continues.
To be compatible with this deep relational process requires by its nature reciprocal relational involvement from us in order to be in likeness to the whole of God constituted in the Trinity. Without this compatible response there is no functional relationship with the whole of God as signified together with the trinitarian persons; without this compatible involvement in the relational process of family love, there is no corporate function of our relationships as God’s family in the likeness of the Trinity. This family and the relationships necessary to be family are constituted in the Trinity and by the Trinity in relationship together with us.
Since such theology is not merely to inform us but to relationally engage our practice, we cannot talk about the Trinity without addressing ecclesiology—that is, our doctrine and practice of church. Thus, our discussion specifically extends to how the church functions as the Trinity in being the family of God.
The relational condition “to be apart” among God’s people (even unintentionally or inadvertently with relational distance) is contrary to God’s design and purpose for creation—which are both functionally whole and wholistically relational—as well as a contradiction to the likeness of the Trinity. Historically, how work and even service or ministries have been engaged, for example, are practices which effectively often maintain relational distance and inadvertently even promote it—even in the practice of church. God is neither pleased nor passive with this relational condition. The Trinity’s ongoing relational response to God’s people being apart from the whole has been outlined historically in the narrative of God’s self-revelation, of which the incarnation of the Son is the ultimate relational outworking of God’s family love.
The NT counterpart to God’s declaration “not good to be apart” is Jesus’ declaration that “I will not leave you as orphans” (Jn 14:18). We need to understand these declarations together as the whole of God in response to our relational condition. Jesus’ declaration represents God’s ultimate response to fulfill his purpose and promise to be his family, which the Spirit relationally continues to bring to functional completion (cf. Rom 8). Being relational and emotional “orphans” among God’s people (even as unintentional or inadvertent relational distance) is contrary to the life of God’s family and in conflict with the life of the Trinity.
What truly represents God and being in his image is to function as the Trinity does, and what genuinely reflects the life of the Trinity is the practice of their intimate interdependent relationships as family. In contrast to the church operating as an organization or as a voluntary association, the function of the Trinity is the primary issue facing the church for how it will function both within itself and in the world.
The church in Sardis (Rev 3:1, 2) had “a reputation of being alive” in the prevailing perception, and that church lived behind their “reputation” (onoma, used as the substitute of what a person actually is). But Jesus said, in actuality “you are dead” (nekros, the condition of being separated from the source of life, thus being unaccompanied by something) because “I have not found your deeds complete.” Their “deeds” (ergon, works denoting what defined them) were not “complete” (pleroo, to fill up, make full or complete). What was missing in their practice?
It started back at creation and the purpose to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). As noted earlier, the Hebrew term for “fill” (male) generally denotes completion of something that was unfinished. What God started with Adam and Eve was the relational context and process of the function to be God’s family, which is now fulfilled in Christ and brought to completion by the Spirit—“I will not leave you as orphans.” This relational context and process were not the primacy of the Sardis church’s involvement and ministry.
In spite of how well the Sardis church presented itself (its appearance) and how well it was perceived (its image), substance was lacking. This lack of deeper qualitative substance exposed the credibility of their reputation as essentially worthless, while the validity of their work (service and ministry) was insignificant because they were separated (“to be apart”) from the substance primary to life. These are severe judgments Jesus made on a church which at least was doing something to earn that reputation of being alive. Yet, the credibility gap between what appears so and what actually exists is not readily apparent to a church and observers when a church relies on what it does to define itself. Reputation becomes one of those valued indicators of success which many churches depend on for feedback to evaluate their work.
When Jesus confronted them to “wake up,” the sense of this two-word combination (gregoreuo and ginomai) is to emerge as a new, whole person. They needed to be transformed as persons because they defined themselves from the outside in and thus did not give full importance to the qualitative significance of the whole person (especially signified by the heart). Their quantitative-over-qualitative way of defining themselves determined how they did relationships and influenced how they practiced church—which were not complete. This certainly affected their relationships with God and with each other, though not obvious to them because of the influence of reductionism.
Jesus called them back to what they “received” (lambano, 3:3) as defined in John 1:12, which means to embrace and follow as a teacher (that is, be a disciple) not as students in the rabbinic tradition but as adherents in the relational reality of God’s family as his very own daughters and sons. This is the qualitative significance of the incarnation and the relational significance of the gospel, nothing less and no substitutes. In other words, Jesus called them back to the basic necessity of relational work inherent in who, what and how the Trinity is, and thus who his people are and what his church is: the family of God. For this they needed to become transformed persons who directly engaged in relational work in order to build transformed relationships together so as to be a transformed church.
The lack of primacy for this fundamental relational work is demonstrated even more definitively by the church in Ephesus (Rev 2:1-4). Jesus acknowledged their “deeds” (ergon, what defined them), their “hard work” (kopos, denotes not so much the actual effort but the weariness experienced from that effort) and their “perseverance” (hypomone, endurance as to things and circumstances, in contrast to patience toward persons; character that does not allow losing to circumstances). Along with maintaining the doctrinal purity of the church in trying circumstances and even suffering repercussions for Christ’s name, they held up and remained constant in their faith. This composite picture describes how they were, what they did and were involved in—very, very active in church work, which can certainly describe a number of successful churches today.
Jesus was not impressed but even felt to the contrary about what they were doing: “you have forsaken your first love” (2:4). If it was not Jesus making this critique, we would probably dismiss such a charge. This is serious church business and important to account for in how we practice church ourselves.
The term “forsaken” (aphiemi)
means to forsake, abandon persons, to leave, let go from oneself
or let alone. This is the same word Jesus used in his promise to
“not leave [us] as orphans” (Jn 14:18). In the context at
Ephesus this strongly describes not paying attention to the
whole person and giving primacy to relationships. They worked
hard doing things for God but the relational process was
deemphasized or misplaced in the effort. As the word for
“perseverance” denotes, they were so focused on circumstances
and situations such that persons (especially God) were
relationally ignored, left at a distance or emotionally
forgotten. Despite what would usually be defined as positive
church work, there was distance in their relationships leaving
them in the condition “to be apart.” They did not have the
relational involvement of agape love (as family love),
which is the only involvement having relational significance to
God. Since they focused on what they did—suggesting how they
defined themselves—their interests were on less important areas
(secondary in God’s priorities) than relationship. This
determined how they did relationships, which resulted in the
relational consequence of forsaking their first love reflecting
the lack of relational involvement in their practice of church.
The basic complaint God had against them that we need to examine in our practice of church was: in all they were doing (which was a lot) as a church and as Christians, they were not directly involved in the relational context and process of the whole of God constituted in the Trinity. This church lacked the relational work of family love because the relationships signified by the Trinity were not their primary priority. There is demonstrated here a direct correlation between the priority we give relationships and the extent to which we are loving (as defined by relational involvement, not as doing something). Whether Jesus’ complaint against the church in Ephesus includes both their relationship with God and with others is not clearly indicated in the text. Yet we can strongly infer that it includes all their relationships because what they emphasized in their work reflected how they defined themselves, which further determined how they did relationships and thus practiced church.
The practices of the churches in Sardis and Ephesus were contradictions which reflect the influence of reductionism. What they focused on and engaged in were reductionist substitutes for the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love. The relational consequence was to fall into ontological simulation and epistemological illusion. Whenever such “church” work is given priority over relational work, we have to examine what we are “filling up” our churches with and how this fulfills what God started in the relational work of the Trinity.
The church functioning as the Trinity is not merely a paradigm (though the trinitarian example does serve as that) but more significantly it is the relational outcome of directly experiencing the Trinity in relationship. This ongoing process is fundamental to the practice of church, particularly as revealed vulnerably by Jesus in the relational progression of following him to the Father.
We cannot adequately “observe” the Trinity without being relationally addressed by the Trinity at the same time. Keep in focus that God’s self-revelation is how God does relationship. How the Trinity is revealed, therefore, is how the Trinity relates to us, which is how the trinitarian persons do relationship with each other (though in horizontal relational process discussed earlier).
We cannot ontologically understand and epistemologically know the Trinity without engaging the Trinity in how the trinitarian persons do relationship in general and are doing relationship with us specifically at the time. It is within this relational context and process that God’s self-disclosure vulnerably is given and needs to be received, thus directly experienced as an outcome of this relational connection. This consistency with the trinitarian relational context and compatibility with the trinitarian relational process cannot be engaged from the detached observation of a scientific paradigm or with the relational distance of a quantitative-analytic framework but can only be engaged from the qualitative function of relationship. Similarly, J. I. Packer defined the process of knowing God as a relationship with emotional involvement, and he challenged as invalid the assumption that the theological task can be engaged meaningfully with relational detachment.
This is the relational significance of the deeper epistemology that Jesus made a necessity for Philip and Thomas in order to truly know him and thus also know the Father (Jn 14:1-9, as discussed earlier). This is the relationally-specific process that does not merely see (or observe) but rather deeply contemplates (as in theaomai, Jn 1:14), that does not reduce the person merely to attributes and categories but rather puts the parts of revelation together to comprehend the whole of God (as in syniemi, Mk 8:17, and synesis, Col 2:2).
This relational epistemic process is the outworking of the Trinity’s relational involvement with us. Therefore, to come to know the triune God is not possible by individual effort nor is the individual’s relationship with God alone sufficient. This process involves the practice of relationship as signified by the Trinity which, when experienced, results in the corporate life of relationship constituted in the Trinity as the family of God. Thus this process involves the integration of both spirituality (engaging intimate relationship with the Trinity) and community (practicing the family relationships of the Trinity). Understanding the Trinity as revealed—present and involved with us—is never merely for us to be informed about God but always directly impacts our person and relationships, thus consequential for how we define our person, how we do relationships and practice church.
Consequently the function of the Trinity cannot be grasped in propositions of trinitarian theology nor experienced in church doctrine. Along with reducing the whole of God to attributes and the trinitarian persons to categories (or roles), these reflect how our understanding (“a reputation of being alive,” Rev 3:1) and our practice (“have forsaken your first love,” Rev 2:4) become decontextualized. That is, they are removed (or deemphasized) from the relational context and process of the Trinity and need to be recontextualized in the relational nature of the Trinity.
The church is the ultimate practice that must (dei by its nature, not from obligation or compulsion) be contextualized in the Trinity’s relational presence and involvement. Even overemphasis of the metaphor “the body of Christ” for the church (for example, focused on organizational structure, not relational function) can decontextualize the church as the family of God constituted in and by the Trinity. Moreover, in another sense, with an incomplete Christology and truncated soteriology a church can inadvertently become too Christocentric, and subsequently not practice the relational progression to the Father vulnerably enacted by the Son and continued by the Spirit in the function of the Trinity constituting the whole of God as family.
The life of the Trinity becomes the church’s life and function. It is this life as the family of God which defines the church’s purpose and constitutes its practice.
As previously discussed, the different roles and functions expressed in the Trinity do not define their persons, though these reflect the unique (but secondary) distinctions each person exercises to extend family love to us. Each of the trinitarian persons is defined by the same qualitative substance (homoousiou) which not only defines the equality of their persons (hypostases) but is also fundamental to their relationships (perichoresis). Thus these unique distinctions also do not determine the primacy of their relationships and how they are involved with each other. They are not involved with each other primarily on the basis of role differences but rather with the essential qualitative significance of their persons expressed in love (both agape, Jn 14:31, and phileo, Jn 5:20).
This qualitative substance and these intimate relationships of love are what the churches in Sardis and Ephesus got away from. This issue is not merely a matter of priorities but about the primacy of relationship without which all other effort (even with good intentions) is insignificant to God and qualitatively meaningless. Given the high activity level of these churches, they likely had well-organized roles to operate so efficiently. This suggests how they substituted for what is primary and matters most to God.
The corporate life of a church can be undertaken in either of two contrasting approaches. One approach is from an institutional framework or organizational paradigm. Institutions and most organizations are a function of structure and systemic processes. While the church has organizational properties of structure (namely interdependence) and systems (specifically covariation), the authentic church cannot be a function of organizational aspects. Such a framework and mindset tend to predispose or bias us to see and practice church in a limited way—with the substitutes of reductionism. This is particularly critical in the information age and the broad influences of information technology, which Quentin Schultze contends shift our perceptions of the world increasingly through the lenses of measurable norms, means, causes, and effects—that is, a systemic concept (closed systems) of human culture, our image of ourselves and society that persons can objectively observe, measure, manipulate, and eventually control. This leaves us susceptible to practice what Schultze calls “informational promiscuity: impersonal relationships based on feigned intimacies and lacking moral integrity.”
The apostolic church was not based on an organizational paradigm even though it reflected organization. At the core of the church is relationship: a covenant relationship (from the OT) and a transformed relationship (in the NT) constituted in and by the Trinity as the family of God. The church is a function only of these relationships, and any structure, system or roles serve only as support functions of the primacy of these relationships. This contrasting approach to the corporate life of the church is from the relational paradigm emerging from the relational outcome of direct experience with the Trinity.
This relational paradigm is inherent in the relational progression to the Father incarnated by Jesus and continued by the Spirit. The deep understanding of the relational process involved in the relationship of God is gained from Jesus’ vulnerable self-disclosure of his interactions with the Father, which serves as the functional key for church practice. Two particular interactions in different but related situations regarding the same purpose provide this understanding.
The Father had already revealed his “delight” with his Son (Mt 3:17; 17:5; cf. Is 42:1; Mt 12:18). The term “delight” (eudokeo) is also rendered “to be well-pleased.” The latter suggests to be pleased with what a person has done whereas the former seems to focus on the person. I suggest “delight” better expresses the qualitative substance of the Father in relationship with the Son about his qualitative substance, not the expression of a parent about a child’s performance. Yet, whatever emphasis is given to the Father’s feeling for his Son, consider what the Father felt when the Son told him that he no longer wanted to die on the cross (Mt 26:39).
This interaction in the garden of Gethsemane demonstrated the relational process involved in the Trinity’s relationship with each other. What had been planned together even before creation and was now being fulfilled by the incarnation, the Son astonishingly did not want to continue. We can speculate that in that moment the Father was displeased with the Son or dismayed, not delighted. Yet, what we need to understand about the Trinity and grasp for our relationships is why this interaction even happened at all.
Jesus did not want to die, but human weakness is not the significance of the interaction. Why this interaction even happened at all is because such an interaction could happen, was “designed” to happen and thus was expected to happen. That is, what this interaction signifies is the complete openness (honesty as it were) and vulnerableness of their whole person (not reduced to roles ) with each other in the intimate relational involvement of love as family together. And since this was not a monologue by the Son, for the implied response from the Father I would suggest deep sadness by the Father in having to say “no” to the Son’s request. Whatever is implied in this interaction, Jesus demonstrated how they do relationship together. In other words the trinitarian persons can be their “genuine” person before each other and intimately share with each other anything, so to speak—without the caution, restrictions or limits practiced in human relationships since the primordial garden (cf. they “were both naked and they felt no shame,” Gen 2:25). Anything less than their whole person and these relationships necessary to be the whole of God no longer would constitute the Trinity of revelation and therefore becomes a reduction of God.
Such reductionism even occurs with good intentions, as witnessed by the churches in Ephesus and Sardis. This is further illustrated in Mel Gibson’s historic film “The Passion of the Christ” during the reenactment of the Gethsemane scene. Whether by creative license or revisionist history, Gibson had Jesus returning to Peter, James and John after his intense ordeal with the Father only to remark: “I don’t want the others [disciples] to see me this way.” Gibson suggests by adding this statement to the historic narrative that Jesus wanted to appear to the other disciples as if everything was fine. Jesus, however, never reduced his person and presented himself wearing a mask—that is, reinforcing relational barriers “to be apart.”
More significantly, the Son did not reduce his person with the Father. Not only did he express his desire to avoid the cross but he expressed his deeper desire “yet not as I will but as you will” (Mt 26:39). The Son’s prayer was not about himself, though he openly expressed his person. This was not a matter of the priority of the individual, thus also not merely including the individual desires of only the Father. This was about the whole of God. There is no aspect or function of individualism in the nature of the Trinity, though each is distinct in their person and unique in their function. As a trinitarian person, the Son demonstrated the interdependent (in contrast to independent) relational nature of the Trinity as the whole of God’s family. Furthermore, the Son also defined how the Spirit does not function independently but interdependently in the whole of God in another interaction (Jn 16:13-15).
The intimate interdependent relationships of the Trinity are constitutive both of the whole of God and the whole of each trinitarian person. Therefore, not only can the trinitarian persons not be reduced but neither can they be separated from each other nor considered independently. The identity of each as a whole person is reduced and thus incomplete if not also constituted in relation to each other in the whole of God as family. This is how our practice can become too Christocentric, consequently individualized.
The significance of the Son’s intimate interaction with the Father distinctly defines for us what is a whole person and how relationships need to be practiced in order to be whole. This is directly connected to our previous discussion of Adam and Eve “both naked and they felt no shame” (Gen 2:25) in God’s original design and purpose, which is restored and expanded in the new creation by Christ to be completed by the Spirit as God’s ongoing faithfulness in response to our reductionist substitutes “to be apart.”
God’s ongoing response to our relational condition and our activity to maintain this condition “to be apart” point us to a second related interaction helping us further to understand the relational process involved in the relationship of God.
From the direct honesty at Gethsemane we are led to the pain on the cross. Beyond the physical pain, however, we are exposed to the relational pain, which was initially experienced in the garden (Mt 26:37) in anticipation of this: “my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt 27:46). The Son’s painful cry not only further expressed his honesty and openness with his Father but now even more significantly demonstrated the relational wholeness by which their life together is constituted (Jn 10:38; 14:10, 11, 20; 17:21). Therefore, we are exposed intimately to what is most fundamental to the life of God: the whole of the relationship of God.
Since God is the Trinity, the whole of the triune God is constitutive of the Trinity’s relationships while the Trinity’s relationships together constitute the whole of God—apart from which the life of God does not function.
As a result of taking our sin, in that moment of mystery the Son was no longer in the Father nor the Father in him. We can have only some sense of understanding this by focusing on the relational reality in distress, not the ontological. With this qualitative relational focus we become vulnerable participants both in the painful relational consequence involving any degree of the condition “to be apart” from the whole and in the fullness of God’s ultimate response to redeem us from this condition as well as to reconcile us to the whole of God in the relationship of God. Together with the relational work of the Spirit we not only can understand but also directly experience the relational process essential to the life of the Trinity as family constituting the whole of God (2 Cor 3:16-18; Eph 2:22).
For this wholeness to be experienced, however, the relational barriers “to be apart” have to be removed (cf. Eph 2:14-16). When the Son cried out in relational pain, all those barriers converged on him to evoke the Father’s rejection. For me, it was also the moment the Father cried. In a figurative sense, the whole of God was broken; yet the relational significance of this paradoxical moment was specific to wholeness in order that we (both individually and corporately) would be made whole in our person and would live relationally specific to God and others in the relationships necessary to be whole (cf. Eph 2:17-22).
We cannot talk about the Trinity without the whole of God. We cannot discuss the ontology of the triune God without the function of their relational oneness. Wholeness is a function of relational oneness, which is a function of the relational process of intimate involvement in the interdependent relationships as family with family love. To be whole is not merely an individual quality but must include the qualitative state of one’s corporate relationships. Wholeness is not constituted in the individual alone but only in persons together functioning in these requisite relationships.
If we grasp the relational significance of the Son’s pain from being forsaken by the Father, this goes beyond relational rejection to the deeper relational condition of being apart from the whole of God. In this sense, what is taken away from the wholeness of the Trinity affects the wholeness of each trinitarian person. Not only are they no longer in each other but they are not one—whole. To be forsaken or to forsake is to be separated from this fundamental whole. Certainly the mystery of this pivotal moment has no ontological understanding; God never stopped being God. And there is also the paradoxical aspect of the Son declaring he will not forsake us as orphans apart from the whole of God’s family (Jn 14:18) who is now himself separated from this whole. Yet the relational significance in this both signifies the fundamental whole of the Trinity as well as establishes the means for relationship necessary to be whole in the likeness of the Trinity. This is the whole of the relationship of God that Jesus not only prayed for his followers to have (Jn 17:20-23) but also paid the cost for the redemptive change necessary to truly have it, and further provided his Spirit to help us authentically experience it and ongoingly function in it together.
The church functioning as Trinity is the outworking of the family relationships demonstrated between the Son and the Father and mediated by the Spirit. The function of these relationships only becomes relationally significant to God and to each other when it involves the qualitative substance of the whole person (signified by the heart) opened to one another and coming together in the primacy of relationships (constituted by intimacy). The relational significance to the Trinity happens when our whole persons function together in the intimate interdependent relationships as God’s family in the process of God’s family love. In practice this is the integration of spirituality and community (communion), both of which are defined by God on the terms self-disclosed in the Trinity.
This is the whole of the relationship of God in which all of God’s actions since creation can be understood as the response of God’s desires for us to experience instead of any function “to be apart.” Anything less than the relationship of God breaks the whole and becomes a substitute of reductionism, which then creates barriers (unintentionally or inadvertent) to reconcile the relational distance “to be apart.” Just as the Son’s painful relational experience accomplished on the cross, these barriers need to be redeemed ongoingly in the process of redemptive change (the old dying and the new rising) for the church to be reconciled to its function in likeness of the Trinity in the whole of the relationship of God.
Redemption and reconciliation involve the relational process of restoring God’s creation to this wholeness. Thus redemptive change is a necessary function of the church in the relational process involved in the relationship of God, without which the church and each of its members could not be whole. This function of the church involves the relational work directly with the trinitarian persons (and their relational work) as vulnerably revealed by Jesus during the incarnation, particularly as noted in Gethsemane and on the cross. As the church functions in this reciprocal relational work necessary for redemptive change, it can expect to be made whole in its practice and in its relationships as the whole of God’s family constituted in and by the Trinity.
The primacy of this requisite relational work must be engaged within the trinitarian relational context of family and must be ongoingly compatible with the trinitarian relational process of family love. This is the relational paradigm subsequent to the relational outcome of directly experiencing the Trinity in relationship and thus the relational imperative for ongoing involvement with the Trinity. Anything less or other than this relational context and process becomes a reductionism of the whole of the Trinity, the trinitarian persons, our person and the whole of the church as family. And the main functional indicators of the presence of reductionism involve how we define the person and do relationships, even in the inadvertent practice of relational distance.
Reductionism has been the critical issue for the relational condition “to be apart” ever since Adam and Eve in the primordial garden. Reductionism of and in the church is not a phenomenon unique to modernity, as demonstrated by the early churches in Ephesus and Sardis. Moreover, reductionism in the epistemic process of understanding and truly knowing God has been most problematic—even a crisis today—that Thomas and Philip experienced (Jn 14:1-10), as discussed earlier. Yet directly in contention with the ongoing issue of reductionism, Jesus committed himself not to leave his followers as relational or emotional orphans, ontological or epistemological orphans apart experientially from the whole of the Trinity as complete-intimate members of God’s family. We need to hold him accountable for this today in the life of the church, and we need to account for this ongoingly in our practice of church.
As Christ’s followers gather (ekklesia), it is the gathering of those who have been called out and together (ekkletoi). How the church is to come together cannot be in the likeness of individualism, inequality, nor even in the likeness of a voluntary association. It must (by its nature, not obligation or compulsion) be in the relational context and process with and in likeness of the Trinity. This relational dynamic is the critical basis by which we need to construct a functional ecclesiology—which is contrary to the substitutes of reductionism and thus in conflict with their practice, as Christ declared in Revelations 2 and 3.
The trinitarian relational context and process never allow the relationships in the church to remain distant, shallow, independent, or selectively involved. The Trinity never does relationships on these terms, nor does God accept such relationships from us. Indeed, the whole of the relationship of God is both relationship specific and relationally significant to the Trinity’s interdependent relationships intimately involved in family love, of which the gathering of Christ’s followers is the likeness. The church’s practice must have this relational clarity.
Paul’s emphasis for the church expands on this relational paradigm, the focus of which should not be confused with his responses to various reductionist contexts throughout his epistles. In the Pauline corpus, he 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. 1 Pet 2:5). The temple in the OT was God’s dwelling place but in the NT God’s presence has more direct and intimate relational significance—vulnerably in the incarnation and then in the person of his Spirit. This church is thus to come together (not just gather) in order to be transformed “to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (Eph 2:22). Yet this is not merely God’s place of residence from which he observes his people doing ministry, nor a structure over which God presides monitoring their beliefs and traditions. God intimately lives by his Spirit within his people, as Paul further defined about the nature of the temple (1 Cor 3:16), not in a place, structure or system. And how God lives within the church is solely on the basis of the trinitarian relational process, not on organizational terms.
The temple metaphor does not define this relational process for us. For this purpose Paul uses other metaphors to complete our understanding of what indeed 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; cf. 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 the whole of God’s family together. This provides us with the vital relational context and process signified by the Trinity for how to function as the church. Yet we cannot adequately perceive this new kinship family with a reductionist framework which would substitute, for example, the household from the Industrial Revolution or the nuclear family of today. Contrary to those reductionist substitutes, God does not preside over this new family in the role of figurehead nor does he merely dwell in the household. Unlike the norm of how we tend to do family with relational distance, God’s household and family involve the intimate relational process between the Son and the Father discussed earlier.
The church functions as God’s family because of the relational outcome of directly experiencing the Trinity in relationship. The relational work of the whole of the Trinity in each trinitarian person’s function to extend family love to us brings us together in the church as the family of God. The Father is able to build transformed relationships with his adopted children as family together because of the Son’s vulnerable relational work of redemptive reconciliation. While his Spirit lives within each individual daughter or son, the Spirit does not work for the individual’s self-autonomy or self-determination but for the whole of God functioning as family in the likeness of the Trinity (cf. 1 Cor 12:7). This is the relational outcome covenanted by the Father and incarnated by the Son in the relational progression of God’s family love, which the Spirit brings to complete wholeness in God’s eschatological plan for all creation (Rev 21:1-5).
The sum of the Trinity’s relational work in family love constitutes the church and its function as God’s family. Christ’s church comes together with him only for these relationships—to be the whole of God’s family. The authentic church cannot be a function of anything less than relationships, family relationships, living by his family love in likeness of the Trinity. Though the Son and Father define and demonstrate what it means to be God’s family, the Spirit’s relational work is the critical relational means to experiencing this relational reality. Often overlooked in the Trinity, it is necessary briefly to highlight the Spirit’s relational work.
Directly from the Son’s commitment not to leave us as relational and emotional orphans, the intimate relational presence of the Spirit is given to his followers (Jn 14:16, 17). “The Spirit of truth” in function needs to be understood as the Son’s relational replacement whom the Father gave as “another” in lieu of the Son. The term “another” (allos) means another of equal quality, not another of different quality (heteros). The Spirit then is defined by the Son as equal to himself; in a relational sense they are interchangeable (cf. 2 Cor 3:17, 18; Gal 4:6).
The Spirit functions in the trinitarian relational context and process as the Son’s relational replacement (Jn 14:26; 15:26; 16:13-16) and as the relational extension of the Father (Eph 2:18, 22; Rom 8:15, 16). The perception of the Spirit as helper, counselor (“Paraclete”) merely to do something and help the individual is inadequate and tends to become a reductionist function. The Spirit’s presence, however, is only relational and relational work is the fundamental function of the Spirit’s purpose.
Without defining all this relational work, the Spirit functions in the primacy of the relational context of family (Rom 8:16; 2 Cor 5:5) and the relational process of family love (Rom 8:15; Gal 4:6,7). And the person of the Spirit is deeply affected by any practice “to be apart” in God’s family relationships (Eph 4:30), which we will discuss shortly. “The Spirit of adoption” serves only the relational purpose of bringing to completion the relational progression to God’s family which the Son incarnated and the Father ordained (Rom 8:29; Eph 1:5). It is this whole of the relationship of God from which the Spirit works as the third person ontologically and relationally constituted in the Trinity. We cannot reduce, distort or obscure the complete relational function involved between the Son’s promise not to leave his followers as orphans, the Father’s fulfillment and the Spirit’s purpose—which clearly involves our relationship to the whole of God and being God’s family as his very own daughters and sons, and the experiential reality and responsibility which the Spirit serves to help us complete.
The Spirit is the only one who can and will bring these relationships of God’s family to completion, transforming us to be in qualitative conformity to the relational likeness of the Son, just as the Father desires (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). As suggested in these verses, “the Spirit of transformation” does the relational work necessary to transform us (metamorphoo, to change from inside out) to the new of what the Son saved us to, thus the redemptive change to genuinely live in relational significance to the Father and relationship-specific to the Father’s desires. The presence and function of the Spirit’s person guarantees this relational outcome when not constrained nor grieved.
Without the Spirit’s active presence and function, church practice becomes in effect the unilateral effort of relational orphans. Besides being the overlooked or forgotten person, however, the Spirit is often the misused person. Even when not overlooked, the Spirit still can be misused—in two major ways in particular.
The first misuse of the Spirit involves what is represented in spiritual gifts and what we do. A reductionist view of these spiritual gifts perceives them with a mindset which defines our person by what we have and thus can do. In some Christian subcultures, having a spiritual gift has become the main ingredient to Christian identity. Invariably in church practice, when this gift essentially defines what a person can do, thus what role they should have, this engages a comparative process of what we have and do which leads to subtle stratification in the church (based on the gift you have) and to implicit differentiation of status (based on what you do)—relational consequences even unintentional or inadvertent. Such a process reduces the significance of what a person is while confusing the identity of who a person is, not to mention the distance in church relationships.
Contrary to such a view is the mindset of the Spirit who gives out all the spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12:11). Every spiritual gift (charisma) by definition means a gift of God’s grace (1 Cor 1:4-7). Everyone in Christ has that grace and is not without charisma, therefore is never lacking of a spiritual gift. There are specific spiritual gifts further distributed by the Spirit (Heb 2:4). The term for “distribute” (merimos) comes from the word merizo which means to divide into parts. This implies a whole from which the parts come and which they make up together. From this whole, only the Spirit determines who gets what part and “gives them to each one” (1 Cor 12:11). “Gives” (diaireo) means to take one part from another (that is, a whole), again defining the mindset of how the Spirit works contrary to a reductionist mindset. Whether we focus on the whole or the parts is consequential for church practice.
The distribution of the parts is certainly not uniform (1 Cor 12:8-10; Rom 12:6-8; Eph 4:11). Different gifts are given to different persons (1 Cor 12:4), yet every person is given a spiritual gift the unique function of which is manifested by the Spirit (phonerosis, make visible or observable, 12:7). The pivotal emphasis essential for us to grasp, however, is not on differences but on their commonality to the whole: different gifts but the same Spirit (12:4), different ministries, service (diakonia) but the same Lord (12:5), different effects of exercising these (“working,” energema) but the same result because of the same God’s underlying work (energo) in all the different gifts in all the different persons (12:6). And the Spirit’s relational work unifies all these differences to the whole of God because the Spirit functions only from this whole (12:11). Therefore, the Spirit is the necessary person in the Trinity functionally constituting us as the family of God. It is problematic to perceive the Spirit apart from this whole, as we will see further shortly.
Reductionism defines our person by what we have and do, thus focusing us on the doing (accomplishing, achieving, performing) aspect of spiritual gifts and other related church work. This pivotal shift of emphasis takes us away in function from the primary relational involvement of being God’s family, as the church in Ephesus experienced. This shift inevitably focuses on differences and secondary matters, which become manifested in our relationships (often unknowingly), as the church in Sardis experienced. Moreover, this pivotal shift in emphasis involves the issue of whether the Spirit (and spiritual gifts) is given to us to do something (individually or corporately for God) or to relationally be family in the whole of God. These should not be mutually exclusive in function, but in practice reductionism makes the former primary over the latter (for example, parts over the whole), inverting the order of God’s design and purpose (cf. Sardis) or neglecting the primacy of God’s desires (cf. Ephesus), which means relational distance.
As the Spirit of truth, the Spirit always functions in conformity to the Trinity’s purpose, which is completely relational and all about the whole of God as family—the whole from which the Spirit of adoption works and distributes gifts. In other words, spiritual gifts are designed and given only to serve toward fulfilling our reciprocal relational responsibility as the Father’s adopted daughters and sons in order to function together as God’s family and build this whole in likeness to the Trinity (1 Cor 12:7; Eph 4:11-13). When these gifts of God’s grace become reduced in function (if not also in perception) to merely do something, however sincere in practice or with good intentions for God, then we effectively misuse the Spirit. Additionally, such reductionism distorts the body metaphor of the church by viewing the whole as merely the sum of its parts. This view is consequential to the synergism of the church body in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Church synergy is not only the organic function of its relationships (as Paul described, 1 Cor 12:12-26) but also the outcome in cooperation with the Spirit’s relational work.
This overlaps into the second misuse of the Spirit. When the relational purpose of the Spirit is misperceived, the Spirit’s function is not only reduced but individualized. With the need, responsibility or pressure to measure up, to produce, to perform, even to justify (for example, God’s love, grace, promises), reductionism and individualism resist the relational purpose of the Spirit and try to change the Spirit’s function. In this mindset and process, the Spirit is reduced to serve the individual and to work, for example, to secure the individual’s self-autonomy, to assist in self-determination or to fulfill the individual’s agenda even “for the sake of Christ.”
This creates an ongoing tension and conflict with the Spirit—creating a contradiction of purpose and function. Since the Spirit is here for the whole of God and the relationships necessary to be whole as God’s family, contrary to many perceptions the Spirit is not here for the individual. The Spirit works the relational progression to God’s family to complete wholeness in God’s eschatological plan, so that we will not stop short in the big picture or get stuck in a reductionist framework.
As in all valid relational work by its nature—contrary to power relations—the Spirit’s relational work is not unilateral. The Spirit does not impose his work on us as a general rule but works in cooperation with our relational work such that the Spirit does not do all the work, nor do we. This signifies the cooperative and reflexive nature of this relational process that goes back and forth between us. And since the Spirit is not a force or an essence but a person, the person of the Spirit is grieved when the whole of God’s family is reduced and the relationships necessary to be whole are deemphasized, distorted or ignored (Eph 4:30; cf. Is 63:10), which then reduces the Spirit’s presence and function relationally.
The term for “grieve” (lypeo) involves a relational context in which emotional pain is experienced. We need to connect the Spirit’s pain Paul describes with the emotional pain Jesus experienced in the garden of Gethsemane (lypeo, perilypos, Mt 26:37, 38). The Son’s pain went well beyond the situational (pending death) to the relational (anticipating being apart from the whole of God), as discussed earlier. The Spirit’s emotional pain is about the same relational issue. These emotional pains are not metaphors but the actual relational experiences of the trinitarian persons, which further interacts with our involvement (cf., "cry out," krazo, with the Spirit and with Jesus on the cross, Mt 27:50). And this disclosure provides us with the clearest distinction of the Spirit’s full personhood, whose presence and function we must (by its nature, not from obligation or compulsion) embrace relationally.
Together with the relational context and process of the church, Paul directly interrelates the function of the Spirit throughout this epistle (Eph 1:13, 14, 17; 2:18, 22; 3:4, 5, 16, 17; 4:3,30; 5:18; 6:17, 18). While addressing the relational process of deeper relational involvement within the church and the relational issues “to be apart,” Paul warns them not to inflict emotional pain on the Spirit “with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30). The term “sealed” (sphragize) signified a mark of ownership (cf. 2 Cor 1:22). As those redeemed (ransomed by the Son) from enslavement and adopted by the Father as his very own (Eph 1:5, 7, 14), the Spirit of adoption relationally works together with us to make the relational context of family and the relational process of family love an experiential reality in likeness of the Trinity. Anything less in function—even with orthodox theology and doctrinal purity—is relationally apart from the whole of the triune God and causes emotional pain for the Spirit, as it did earlier for the Son, and also for the Father (Gen 6:6).
As the Son promised his followers and the Father fulfilled to his very own, the Spirit is present and functions so that the church would not be filled with relational and emotional orphans. Now that the whole of God’s response to our relational condition “to be apart” is complete, we need to address the relational responsibility of our response to the Trinity.
God’s self-disclosure and response to us have engaged ongoingly the trinitarian relational context of family and relational process of family love. If our response (necessarily both as individuals and corporately as church) is to be compatible to the whole of the triune God disclosed and to the vulnerable response of the trinitarian persons, then this compatibility necessitates the disclosure of our whole person (signified by the qualitative substance of our heart) vulnerably open and involved with the Trinity and thus together with each other in the relationships necessary for the whole of God’s family. In other words, how we respond back to God must be compatible with how the whole of God is extended to us in the trinitarian persons; and the church must engage the trinitarian relational context of family and process of family love in its practice in order to function compatibly with the Trinity and be in the Trinity’s likeness as God’s family. We need to grasp this more deeply.
The compatibility of these vulnerable responses—from the whole of God and the trinitarian persons to the whole of our persons and the church—come together (not just gather) in the loving involvement of intimate relationships as family. These intimate relationships together in family love distinguish the fundamental qualitative difference of how the Trinity functions from the reductionist substitutes of how we often do relationships and practice church. This is what God started at creation and wanted Adam and Eve to complete, that is, to “fill the earth” (Gen 1:28). This is what the Son restores with the new creation and the Spirit cooperatively completes. This is the eschatological plan of the Trinity vulnerably revealed in the incarnation as the relational progression to God’s family—the family constituted in the Trinity and constituted for us by the Trinity.
It is these family relationships and family process in which our response both as individuals and together as church needs to be rooted and functionally involved. Yet, any association of the church to the function of the Trinity likely will challenge most ecclesiologies formulated today.
Moreover, this perception of the church raises various related issues involving theological anthropology and eschatology, in addition to the pneumatology discussed above, while addressing an incomplete Christology (without the complete self-disclosure of God in the face of Christ) and truncated soteriology (without the full gospel of what Christ also saved us to). For these to cohere in the church as Trinity, we must consider that this conversation is engaged further within a context in which the influences of modernity are challenged and the challenges of postmodernity provide opportunity for Christ’s followers, as Jesus prayed, to live together just as the Trinity does “so that the world may believe” (Jn 17:21) and “to let the world know” (Jn 17:23). Specifically then for our immediate concern, the compatibility of our response involves two issues of church practice (among others) needing resolve: the place of the individual and the voluntary association of church membership.
Is the individual a secondary part of the church and does the church function in priority over its individuals? Or is the church a voluntary association of individuals and is the collective of individuals the church? Generally, an Eastern interpretive framework would answer the first set of questions affirmatively while a Western interpretive framework would be in the affirmative to the second set. The Western framework assumes that what underlies the individual are the common notions of freedom and independence. Assuming self-autonomy and self-determination is not an option in an Eastern framework, but is the only viable one in most Western perceptions. These positions coincide with the differences in human thought between the ancient Chinese philosophers and ancient Greek philosophers.
Yet when either perceptual framework of the individual is applied to the biological family (extended or nuclear), there are consequences for the individual and the family whole in both Eastern and Western families. Since the individual is commonly sacrificed in the East, the person tends to be lost in the family without a sense of the deeper identity of who one is as a person within the whole. With the aggrandized individual in the West, the person also tends to become lost, that is, lost in oneself without a sense of the deeper identity of what one is as a person in the primacy of the whole. As a result of the ambiguity or shallowness of who and what the person is, both families experience a less significant family and less complete persons.
Returning to the church as family, we can expect the same results from church practice unless the whole person becomes defined and engages the relationships to be whole, both of which are signified in the Trinity. This requires a new person who is not sacrificed for the economy of the whole (as in Eastern families) nor who is aggrandized at the expense of the whole (seen in Western families). The whole person is distinguished in a theological anthropology which includes a deeper understanding of the image and likeness of God (imago dei) that coheres with Christ as the image of God (2 Cor 4:4; Col 1:15).
This is directly consequential for determining the compatibility of our response to God and thus the nature of our involvement as we practice church.
How the human person is perceived and how that person functions, particularly in relationships, are directly associated with the imago dei. There have been three basic theological formulations or approaches to what constitutes the image of God for all humans. One, it is substantial or structural, that is, consisting of certain attributes or capabilities (like reason) built into the person. Two, it is relational indicating a fundamental relationship between human creature and Creator. Three, it is a goal or destiny for humanity which lies in the eschatological conclusion toward which humans are directed. Each approach by itself lacks the significance of the whole of God. I suggest the imago dei necessarily involves all three aspects within the function of what it means to be whole, which is only constituted by whole persons intimately involved together in the interdependent relationships of the whole of God as family signified in the Trinity and is to be completed at the eschaton.
The whole person is signified by the functional importance of the heart, which is the dynamic qualitative significance God planted into the human person in likeness to the qualitative significance of the whole of God (cf. Eccl 3:11). It is this qualitative significance of heart which God consistently makes most important for the person and pursues in the person throughout the Scriptures. God does not pursue a rationality, intelligence or some attribute or capability ascribed to the imago dei. While this substance certainly correlates to part of the character of God, it is insufficient to be compatible with God for relationship. God wants heart—the qualitative significance of God’s own likeness which is necessary in order to have intimate relationship with God and involvement together in love. Yet this is not merely an individual relationship God desires but also a corporate relationship in the likeness of the Trinity.
In the creation narrative, the imago dei is not just ascribed to an individual but to both human persons, that is, to them together (Gen 1:26, 27). This is an important functional distinction because what God said is “not good” is “to be apart” from the whole of God and the likeness of God’s whole created in human persons as their design and purpose together. This defines the imago dei as directly involving the whole person in the relationships necessary to be whole, which is life together as God’s new kinship family. This is the whole in which God created human persons in the Trinity’s image, and which God has ultimately responded to in Christ for a new creation so we can be whole—God’s desires even before creation that the Spirit is bringing to completion. Therefore, the whole of the imago dei is God’s family as the new creation (humanity) which will be completed in the eschatological conclusion of God’s desires. Yet God’s desires are not goal oriented but ultimately seek only intimate life together as the whole of family constituted in the Trinity, both now and in eternity.
These three aspects of the imago dei converge to formulate this image for the human person in coherence with the whole of God understood in the Trinity. This understanding is gained from God’s self-disclosure in Christ as the image of God, who constitutes the imago dei and the person in the whole.
As we consider “Christ as the image of God” to help us functionally distinguish the whole person, two issues about his person (both human and divine) are important to keep in perspective to ensure a complete Christology. The first issue involves the predominant perception of Jesus as one who only died on the cross as the sacrifice for sin. We cannot reduce his person to what he did merely as a sacrifice for the economy of God’s plan of salvation. This would make the same mistake about the person which individuals experience in families from an Eastern framework.
Similarly, the second issue exalts the image of Christ to a Christocentric position that the Son never claimed (Jn 14:13, 31; 17:4). The issue here is an incomplete Christology, which does not center on the Father, and a truncated soteriology, which does not continue in the relational progression to the Father as his very own family. To stop short in this relational process (however unintentional or inadvertent) is to focus on one trinitarian person at the expense of the whole of the Trinity as well as to focus on one relationship at the expense of the whole of the relationship of God as family. This reduction of the Trinity is also then a reduction of the Son which focuses in effect on a substitute Christ—who may be doctrinally correct but without relational significance to the whole of God, and which may exalt Christ the individual but in actuality reduces the whole of his divine person. This substitute creates a false center revolved around the individual and makes the same mistake about the person which individuals and families experience in a Western framework (or an ancient Greek worldview reflected historically throughout church tradition). To be truly Christocentric, therefore, is to perceive Christ as the image of God, the whole of God constituted in the Trinity—not merely in likeness as the human imago dei signifies but nothing less and no substitutes than the very whole of God. This is the only hermeneutical key Jesus provides.
These two issues about Christ’s person both reduce God’s self-disclosure. As the image of the immanent and invisible God, Paul definitively declares Christ as the only valid source of knowledge of God within contexts of competing claims of knowledge (see context of 2 Cor 4:4 and Col 1:15). He can be definitive because “Christ as the image of God” is about the revelation of God—the full revelation of the fullness of God since Christ is God (Col 1:19; 2:9). Yet, Jesus is not only our hermeneutical key but also our functional key to what is primary in his revelation. What we need to grasp about the person is not primarily the doctrine of Christ as the image of God but more importantly the function of his person as the disclosure of God.
God’s self-disclosure in the incarnation of the Son involved a principle of function by which his person acted and our persons need to act in response. This is the only action which validates the person of Jesus as God’s full self-disclosure. Simply stated the incarnation is a function of the principle: no substitutes and nothing less. The person Jesus presented to us is no substitute of God and nothing less than God. As the Word made flesh this person vulnerably disclosed the whole of God (Jn 1:14, 18).
The principle of “no substitutes and nothing less” also defines by what God does relationship and how God does relationships. Since the incarnation is the fulfillment of God’s response to our condition “to be apart,” the “no substitutes and nothing less” relational response of the life of Jesus communicates two vital relational messages directly to us. First, the whole of God vulnerably extends himself to us and is wholly involved with us relationally (the meaning of agape love) because of the importance to him of our whole person created in the image of the whole of God. Secondly, the whole of God responds to us intimately with family love not only so we would no longer function relationally “to be apart” and remain as relational orphans, but so that we can understand and experience the relationships necessary to be whole together in the family of God as signified by the whole of the Trinity (not solely Christ). For these family relationships and family process of family love, we were created and are re-created in the image and likeness of the Trinity.
Some theologians are now formulating theological anthropology by narrowly focusing on the image of God for humans only as the fulfillment of the new humanity/creation at the eschaton. While this may extend the practice of the church, it lacks functional clarity to be of relational significance to the whole of God, thus is susceptible to reductionism. From the textual convergence of God’s self-disclosure, I suggest that “Christ as the image of God” is what we need to wholly conform to (cf. Rom 8:29) to be the image of God. And Christ clearly defined and vulnerably demonstrated to us: (1) how to define the person, and on this basis (2) how to be involved in relationships, and thus (3) how to function in relationships together as the church, the new creation, the family of God. The image of God involves all three to be whole with the whole of God—whole persons in the relationships necessary to be whole as constituted in the Trinity. The function of the revelation of the image of God in the face of Christ is only for relationship, the reality of which we are accountable now to practice and experience.
In God’s “no substitutes and nothing less” relational response, God demonstrates directly with us both by what God does relationships and how God does relationships. Furthermore, as Jesus consistently demonstrated in his interactions with others, this is the only way God does relationships, which cannot be negotiated. Our response, therefore, needs to be compatible with God’s way of doing relationships. This necessitates also functioning in the principle of “no substitutes and nothing less.” Anything other or anything less would not engage the image and likeness of God, the whole of whom Christ reveals fully to us when his image is not reduced by a substitute.
We need to examine more deeply by what and how God does relationships. Essentially, God does relationship only by the whole, whether it is the whole of God or the whole of a trinitarian person, which cannot be separated from the whole of the Trinity. The whole is by what God does relationship—nothing less and no substitutes. This whole is what the Son presented of his person and what he communicated in his words (actions, interactions and teachings) which authenticated being the image of the triune God. What the Son presents of his person God seeks from our person. The whole of our person is what we need to present in response back to God—no substitutes and nothing less in order to be compatible with the way God does relationship. Moreover, the whole person is what God created, and what is necessary for relationships to be whole in the Creator’s design and purpose.
The whole of the human person is inseparable from the imago dei but not necessarily synonymous with it—depending on the definition of this image, as discussed earlier as a structural nature possessing certain characteristics and capabilities, as something more relational, or as an eschatological outcome. Even with the composite definition I suggest, what is important is its function as it involves the whole person. In likeness to God in the incarnation, God demands our complete relational involvement (defining agape love, Mt 22:37). This involvement—by the relational nature of the way God does relationship—makes imperative presenting the vulnerable integrity (open honesty) of our whole person (from inner out which the Father seeks, Jn 4:23, 24) that is signified by the authentic involvement of our heart (which the Son pursues, Mt 15:8). This is not a metaphor merely to reflect on nor a virtual reality of relationship exercised by outward appearances and well-intentioned simulations. This is a relational reality the authentic experience of which is the outcome only of our person functioning with no substitutes and nothing less than the person God created in the divine image.
In order to be compatible with the relationship of God and thus practice relationships in God’s design and purpose, our response must (again by its nature) be the presentation of our whole person and the communication from our whole person—no substitutes and nothing less. This whole is what Christ as the image of God presented and communicated, thus defining for us by what relationships are done in his likeness.
Jesus Christ constitutes the new creation of the image of God. Christ functioned in the flesh as the image of God to fulfill what Adam and Eve as the image of God did not complete in the first creation. God initially responded to the relational condition “to be apart” in the first creation (Gen 2:18) in order for them to experience relationally together the reality of the image of God functionally signified and constituted in the whole of the Trinity. God initiated further in Christ as the image of God to fulfill his response to our relational condition for a new creation. Therefore, the first creation and the new creation are inextricably linked by Christ in God’s desires for creation and what matters most to God: the whole of the relationship of God as family.
God wants what he created. If the what that God said “is not good” is rendered “to be alone,” (Gen 2:18), then this suggests what matters most to God is the “work” (service for God) and thus defines the person by what one does and the outward aspects of a person. This is not the what God defines as “not good” nor the by what God functions and created in his image. When rendered “to be apart” instead of “to be alone,” we can better grasp the whole of the person God created and the relationships necessary to be whole which God desires for both the first and new creation in the eschatological big picture.
God desires, wants, demands the whole of what he created—the whole of my person, our whole persons in relationship and the whole of those relationships together. In other words, God wants the whole in us which is the image of the whole of God constituted and experienced in the Trinity. This is by what God functions and does all relationships as vulnerably disclosed by Christ and the what he created us for.
If human destiny is defined and constituted by the whole of God—not the substitutes of reductionism—then human conduct and church practice needs to be whole in the required relationships of the whole—nothing less and no substitutes. Reductionism today competes with the whole of God by using a perceptual-interpretive framework which reprioritizes practice away from the primacy of the whole: the whole person signified by the importance of the heart and the intimate relationships necessary to be whole. Yet the functional truth of the incarnate Word as the no-substitutes-and-nothing-less self-disclosure of the whole of God defines and constitutes the gospel, which Paul said must not be “distorted” (reduced, 2 Cor 4:2) or “peddled” (for popular consumption, 2 Cor 2:17).
As followers of Christ, we (individually and corporately) need to desire, want, require, even demand the whole for ourselves and our relationships as the church. Yet our conventional notions of the individual tend to predispose our perceptions of the person in reduced terms and thus our relationships with reductionist substitutes. The place of the individual in church practice cannot be defined or determined by philosophical and sociocultural frameworks without the person getting reduced or lost. When we fail to grasp this whole, a person (of whatever distinction) cannot truly know the importance of who one is and is a part of nor understand the primacy of what one is apart from, thus not realizing the significance of how the relational condition “to be apart” reduces that person(s) to something qualitatively less (not whole) than by what and for what God created us.
Furthermore, Jesus vulnerably disclosed both by what God does all relationships and how God does all relationships. In his “no substitutes and nothing less” response of the incarnation, God extends himself beyond making himself accessible to us such as a king gives audience to his subjects. Much more significantly, Jesus demonstrated how God pursues us for deeper relationship, but not any kind of so-called deeper relationship. “No substitutes and nothing less” implies that God put his whole being on the line in the incarnation opening himself to us only for intimate relationship. Combined with by what God only does all relationships (the whole of God presented and communicated), this is the only level of relational involvement in how God does relationships. Intimacy is the relational outcome of whole persons (signified by the heart) opening to each other and coming together. In our relationship with God this intimacy is also associated with spirituality and spiritual formation, which further defines for spiritual disciplines what is necessary for their practice to have relational significance to God.
Intimate relationships are what functionally constitute the Trinity. This only is how God does relationship. In his interactions (particularly with women), Jesus demonstrated the heart of God vulnerably open and lovingly involved with persons for intimate relationships. Just as experienced in the Trinity, this is the experience of our relationships for which Jesus prayed to the Father (Jn 17:20-26); and we need to submit our whole person in response to the level of relational involvement necessary for these relationships. Moreover, these intimate relationships of love are not merely individual relationships but relationship-specific to the context of the whole of the Trinity as family and thereby constituted in relational significance by family love. When this level of relational involvement is properly engaged, these intimate family relationships are both for our benefit as God’s family and for the world to witness as the alternative to reductionism of persons and relationships—just as Jesus revealed, demonstrated and prayed.
When our Christology is complete, the whole of Christ as the image of the whole of God emerges. When our soteriology is not truncated, Christ as the image of God functions to create the new persons for intimate relationship together as God’s family in the likeness of the Trinity—as God planned even before creation (Rom 8:29) and brings to completion at the eschatological conclusion (1 Cor 15:49) through the process of transformation by the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18). This new person is made whole by being transformed (metamorphoo) qualitatively from the inside out which is a substantive change ontologically distinct from mere outer changes (metaschematizo) having perceptually similar form (for example, “apostles of Christ,” “angel of light” and “servants of righteousness” in 2 Cor 11:13-15). And the place of the individual in the process of completing this new creation is a person neither sacrificed nor aggrandized, neither reduced nor lost.
Given then by what and how God does all relationships, the compatible response of our whole person functions for the primacy of the intimate relationships of the whole of God as family—for the purpose not “to be alone,” not “to be apart,” not to be relational orphans, and even more significantly to function in the new creation image and likeness of God. Furthermore, the response of these whole persons as the image of God in the new creation determines the relational involvement of authentic church practice beyond the limits of church as a voluntary association. We need to understand this more deeply.
Since God’s plan and purpose for us as the new creation involves being “conformed (symmorphos, together with in substance) to the likeness (eikon, image) of his Son” (Rom 8:29), is there any difference in Christ as the image of God and the church’s practice as the image of God? I suggest that there is no relational difference except for one important distinction of function. Consequent to our ontological limits to conform to the image of Christ, we cannot function just as the Son does to be the revelation of God. Obviously, only God can disclose the ontology of God (cf. Jn 1:18).
Yet, as God’s response to our condition “to be apart,” the Son intimately involved his whole person with us and, along with his Spirit, constitutes us in the whole of God (cf. Eph 1:23; 3:19). While as the image of God we cannot be a revelation of God in the way only Christ was, we can nevertheless distinctly reflect the whole of God. Reflecting the whole of God is a function only of our relationships as the whole of God’s family signified in the Trinity. This function exercised in family love emerges only from the ontology of the church as family constituted by the Trinity (Eph 2:19-22). So constituted and expressed the church reflects the whole of God just as Christ revealed the Trinity, thus Christ and his church intimately come together to have a common share (communion) in the image of God.
Moreover, the church’s function to reflect the whole of God is also conjoined with the function to represent God. The function to reflect God and to represent God integrate together inseparably to define the purpose of the church as family (to be discussed also in chapters 8 and 10). Whereas reflecting God necessitates the ontic development of the whole persons together in the church as family engaged in the relational process of family love, representing God involves the relational context and process directly created by the Trinity’s relational work of adoption (Jn 14:18; Gal 4:4-7; Eph 1:5).
In response to our condition “to be apart” and to restore us to the wholeness of creation (first and second), God in his family love adopted us. Adoption has vital relational significance which includes both heir rights and privileges as well as responsibilities. We need to understand this for the practice of the church as family.
In the Roman sociocultural context of NT times, adoption was an important means by which to maintain a family and continue the family name and property. A father in those days had authority (potestas) over sons, and through adoption that potestas changed from a natural father to the adopting father. By Roman law, all debts of a new son—or daughter, though female adoption was rare—were cancelled and all ties to the old life were broken. It was now a new life for the adoptee to whom the new father laid claim. All privileges and heir rights which came with this new family included responsibilities. The adopted son had responsibility to bear the new father’s name (as his very own signifying ownership, possession) as well as to represent the father, neither of which was optional. This responsibility to represent the father and to extend his family was effective also from the time of adoption according to Roman law.
It is with this sense of adoption (and the process in 2 Sam 7:14) that Paul proclaimed the truth of the gospel in the incarnation and Christ’s redeeming work to take us to the Father as his very own and the transforming work of his Spirit to constitute us in his family with relational intimacy (Gal 4:4-7). The adoptees are the new persons of the new creation and together in the relationships necessary to be whole become the new kinship family of God. The church as this family has the purpose and responsibility to represent the Father and extend his family, which is intentional but not voluntary.
While each adoptee has the relational responsibility to represent the Father, the individual alone cannot reflect the whole of God as family. Likewise, the church as family functions to reflect and to represent the whole of the relationship of God but a church cannot fulfill its function while operating as a voluntary association of individuals. A voluntary character essentially allows individuals to determine the church; such a determination becomes a substitute of reductionism in which the parts (and their sum) define the whole—bottom-up causation. Yet the nature of the whole (God or the church) goes beyond its parts (persons or individuals) because the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. A voluntary association is compatible with reductionism but contrary to the whole of God and the church as the whole of God’s family.
In terms of the voluntary aspect of church membership and participation today, too many Western assumptions are made for the meaning of voluntary, for example, such as optional, selective, relative and conditional involvement essentially determined 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. Nothing that Jesus did and said, or that his disciples 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 so constituted, 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 the term ekklesia for the local church (for example, 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, whether we volunteer or not. As a result of Christ’s redemptive work, God’s people were not redeemed to be merely free; that would in effect only involve what Christ saved us from in a truncated soteriology. The whole purpose of redemption is to be adopted as the Father’s very own in his family together (Gal 4:7; cf. 1 Cor 6:19. 20).
Though the Western family norm today revolves around the individual—the consequence of which is fragmenting the family—few would subscribe to the notion of voluntary family membership. A meaningful family does not and cannot 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. How well a church functions in qualitative significance to the image of Christ as the whole of God is not a by-product of organization but the relational outcome of intimate interdependent family relationships involving family love.
The ongoing reality of the Trinity’s relational work of adoption both precludes the voluntary association of the church as well as holds the church accountable for its relational responsibility to represent the Father and extend his family. The church fulfills this relational responsibility as it reflects the whole of the relationship of God constituted in and by the Trinity. Yet the church cannot reflect in its life what it does not first relationally experience with the Trinity and then directly experience with each other together. A church only reflects, and thus represents, what it experiences in its relationships—no matter how many individuals there are and how much those individuals are doing.
Jesus prayed for these intimate interdependent relationships necessary to be whole as family both for his followers together to experience in family love and, then, for the world to be the objects of this family love in order to believe and know what it means to belong to the whole of God’s family (Jn 17:20-26). By his familial prayer for his followers, Jesus constitutes the essential experiential reality of the trinitarian relational context of family and its relational process of family love.
The church, of course, cannot reflect to the world what it does not first relationally experience in its own life. In other words, the church can only function to reflect the whole of God—just as Jesus revealed the whole of the Trinity—when the church’s life together is the relational outcome of intimately engaging the Trinity in the relational context of family and the relational process of family love. The church constituted by the Trinity belongs to the whole of God’s family and thus can authentically extend God’s family to the world. It is this relational experience of belonging to God’s family in family love that is primary in Jesus’ prayer for the world to believe and know, not the mere information of God in doctrinal truth nor knowledge about God merely in what God does.
Yet what does it mean to belong? We need to be able to distinguish it from belonging to a voluntary association, which in NT times was a more significant attachment than can be said for conventional church membership today. The issue of belonging takes us beyond membership or even mere ownership and possession, though it involves them.
The sense of belonging for us to grasp here is critical to understand both as God’s design and purpose in the first creation and in the relational importance of the new creation. Belonging needs a whole entity to belong to and implies a whole of which one is a part. God first created this whole for humankind in the image and likeness of the whole of the Trinity. It was this relational whole that God declared in the beginning was not good to be apart from, not a matter of being alone nor needing a helper for the work (Gen 2:18). And God’s response ever since is essentially summarized as fulfilling, restoring and completing this whole—ultimately in the incarnation of the Son for a new creation culminated by the Spirit.
In the NT there are two terms usually rendered “belong” which combined provide us with the full significance of what it means to belong. The first Greek term is ginomai (see Rom 7:4) which means to begin to be, to become, implying a change of state or condition. This involves the redemptive change necessary for adoption in order to belong to God (cf. Lev 25:55). What ginomai also suggests is the ontology of the new creation: to belong is to become and thus to be whole, which is necessarily both as a person and together in the church as the whole of God’s family. The person cannot become and be and the church cannot become and be apart from the whole of God, not merely in a belief system but also in ongoing function. This is the significance of being “in Christ” and belonging to God. This ontological aspect of belonging is being what God created us (originally and new in Christ), which therefore can authentically reflect the image of God constituted in the Trinity.
The second term rendered “belong” is meno (see Jn 8:35). This sense of belonging overlaps with the ontological aspect as well as also includes the dynamic relational aspect. The term meno means to remain, abide, dwell (cf. Jn 15:4-10), which in John 8 involves the relational process of functioning as full family member (son or daughter). Unlike a slave who is not freed (redeemed) to be adopted to function as a full family member, those who belong to God function in the reciprocal relational involvement of family love as his very own—both intimately with God and with each other.
Yet the relational aspect of belonging is dynamic and thus variable. While the ontological aspect of belonging to God and being a part of the whole of God’s family remains permanent, how we function relationally can vary even to the extent of acting like a slave, as Peter learned (cf. 2 Pet 2:19b). We cannot have a controlling influence in our life (a form of enslavement) and still function as full children in God’s family. They cannot function together nor both determine relationship with God at the same time, as Jesus clearly defined in the interaction above (Jn 8:31-36). If our understanding of belonging is to go beyond mere church membership, then we must get past individualism and voluntary associations. This brings us back to how we define the person, how we engage in relationships and thus practice church.
In this process, we will need to counter the influence of reductionism which has plagued the whole person and the relationships necessary to be whole since that faithless encounter in the primordial garden. Along with redefining the importance of the whole person, reductionism takes away the relational primacy and significance of belonging to the whole (even while advocating membership) by focusing on parts (individuals) the sum of which cannot establish—the sum of which reductionism falsely assumes can determine—the whole necessary for persons to be part of. Reductionism may indeed establish a group of individuals in which to claim membership. But the whole of God and of creation constitutes a process of interdependent relationships the dynamics of which intimately involve the whole parts in covariation wherein the whole is greater than the sum of its parts—the process of synergism created in the likeness of the Trinity.
Nothing less than the whole parts and the whole together and no substitutes for their wholeness can reflect and represent the whole of God as family constituted in the Trinity—just as the “nothing less and no substitutes” divine person vulnerably revealed the whole of God to us. When not reduced in function, whole persons together in the church as family (intimately involved in the interdependent relationships of family love) ongoingly conform in qualitative significance to the image of Christ in relational communion together with the Trinity as God’s family according to God’s desires, design and purpose (Rom 8:29; Gal 4:4-7). This is what it means to belong to the Trinity as the whole of God.
Some may perceive “the church as Trinity” as a metaphor by which to envision the church. For others, “the church as Trinity” may serve as an organizational paradigm to structure the church and its operation. Either would be an error of reductionism which would result in a reductionist substitute of twofold consequence. The first part of the consequence diminishes the reality of relational involvement by the Trinity who experientially constitutes the church in the trinitarian persons’ ongoing relational work. The second part of the relational consequence from a reductionist substitute also separates (or distances) the church from functioning in its reciprocal relational work cooperatively with the Trinity to fulfill its purpose as the relational extension of the whole of God’s family.
Just as the whole of God vulnerably responded to our relational condition “to be apart” from the whole and the relationships necessary to be whole, our compatible response back to God can only be the whole of our persons in relationship together in the church as family both signified and ongoingly constituted by the Trinity. In the trinitarian relational context of family and the trinitarian relational process of family love, the persons together as the church become whole in the image and likeness of the whole of God. Without this relational context and process, there are only individuals in voluntary association—individually and collectively incomplete. Theological anthropology and ecclesiology without the Trinity are incomplete; both apart from the eschatological whole of the new creation lack coherence with God’s desires, design and purpose. All these theological aspects converge in the whole of God’s response to our condition in order for us to be whole.
Wholeness (for human persons and the church) has qualitative meaning and substance only in relational significance to the whole of God, and thus to be whole is an experiential reality only in relationship-specific involvement with the Trinity. The substitutes of reductionism are the only alternative for both the person and the church—the alternative from which the “successful” churches at Ephesus and Sardis still needed to be redeemed. We need to address the substitutes for wholeness to which we have turned and from which we likewise need to be redeemed in order to have significance “outside the box” of modernity and beyond postmodernity so as to reflect and represent the definitive whole of God as Trinity.
 As noted by Alister E. McGrath, “Evangelical Theological Method” in Evangelical Futures, ed. John G. Stackhouse (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), 23.
 Miroslav Volf also contends that “the church must speak of the Trinity as its determining reality,” and recognizes the limits of this analogy in “Community Formation as an Image of the Triune God: A Congregational Model of Church Order and Life,” in Richard N. Longenecker, ed. Community Formation in the Early Church and in the Church Today (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2002), 223-225.
 Quentin J. Schultze, Habits of the High-Tech Heart: Living Virtuously in the Information Age (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 37-42.
 The Spirit’s relational work is outlined further in my related study, The Relational Progression: A Relational Theology of Discipleship, chap. 7 on this website.
 For an expanded discussion on the origins of cultural differences in human thought see Richard E. Nisbet, The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently
. . . and Why (New York: Free Press, 2003).
 For a discussion of this project see Stanley J. Grenz, The Social God and the Relational Self: A Trinitarian Theology of the Imago Dei (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 141-264.
 Consider Peter’s image of Christ when he in effect would not let Jesus go to the cross (Mt 16:21, 22) and when he refused to let Jesus wash his feet (Jn 13:6-8). His reductionist images of Christ both prevented him from embracing the whole of God’s response and also allowed his whole person to remain in a comfort zone of relational distance.
 These interactions are discussed in depth in my study, Following Jesus, Knowing Christ: Engaging the Intimate Relational Process (Spirituality Study, 2003) on this website.
 For a more complete background on adoption, see David J. Williams, Paul’s Metaphors: Their Context and Character (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1999), 64-66.
©2006 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.