Home I Paul Study I Spirituality Study I Discipleship Study I Worship Perspectives I Worship Songs
About Us I DISCiple Explained I Contact Us
The Person, the Trinity, the Church
The Person, the Trinity, the Church
The Challenge of the Whole
Need for Redemptive Change
“It is not good for [the church] to be apart” from the whole. Yet this has been a tension and struggle for the church since its beginning. And the issue then—as it remains for the church today—was reductionism as churches shifted to reductionist substitutes and focused on secondary matter to define itself and determine its practice: namely, circumcision or uncircumcision instead of the new creation (Gal 6:15) and other outer distinctions to stratify and fragment the whole of God’s family (Gal 3:26-29).
As we continue to be subjected to the relational tests of reductionism, the church must—by its nature, not from obligation or compulsion—claim the whole of its life together as family both with the Trinity and with each other. This claim of the whole is not an option for the church but the ontological condition and relational reality of the new creation in Christ, apart from which the church is functionally rendered in practice to mere ontological simulation and epistemological illusion.
In addition, as Paul said to the church in the above
context, this claim is what counts and matters most to God (cf. Gal
5:6); and Paul’s life and teachings reflecting the whole are
critical for our further understanding and practice of the whole of
God. Along with Jesus and the Spirit, Paul is central to the
church’s claim and transition to the whole, and is thus integral to
its discussion in these next two chapters.
In its claim of the whole, church practice needs to address how the person is defined and perceived in actual function—not merely in theology and doctrinal beliefs about the human person and the imago dei—as well as to confront the basis by which relationships are ongoingly engaged. These two issues remain inseparable from what is involved in church practice and usually are antecedent in influencing how we do church. These will not be easy to address and confront because invariably they will involve making changes—that is, redemptive change: the process of being freed from the old and being raised up in the new of the whole (cf. 2 Cor 3:16-18; 5:16-17).
Change always generated controversy when it involved altering the word of God or the consensus of church creedal tradition. Yet, often such controversy resulted in deepening our understanding of God’s Word and reforming practice from church tradition, both of which further brought forth the whole of God. For example, at the Jerusalem council the controversy stratifying the Jewish believers from the Gentile converts resulted in their equalization in the church as the emerging whole of God’s family (Acts 15); instrumental in bringing this redemptive change to the church was the convincing testimony of Peter, whose reductionist theology about the Gentiles had changed earlier (see Acts 10:9-11:17).
Another example of positive change resulting from controversy involved forms of the Arian controversy in the fourth century in which the whole of God was reduced, notably denying the deity of Christ. The Cappadocian fathers responded by formulating the initial doctrine of the Trinity and thus provided a deeper understanding of the relational nature of the whole of God as the social Trinity. Despite this crucial change in theology, the church—particularly in the West though not exempting the Eastern church—has yet to grasp the relational significance of the Trinity for its practice—which Jesus’ high priestly formative prayer defines and constitutes as the whole of God’s family.
Positive changes in theology do not guarantee corresponding changes in church practice—as further demonstrated in the Reformation, though the magisterial Reformers focused on soteriology over ecclesiology. Nor do deepening theological developments (and correct doctrine) automatically bring redemptive change, particularly in how we define the person and function in our relationships. While Peter changed his theology and how he did his ministry, how he actually functioned in his relationships was exposed by Paul to still be the old way, thus lacking deeper redemptive change and heart-level reconciliation (Gal 2:11-14). This suggests that vestiges of reductionism remaining most resistant to change involve the substitutes for the whole in how we define the person by what we do and have and how we function in relationship without the primacy of intimate involvement. This appears to be true even where there is a shift to postmodernity, which, while rejecting modernist assumptions, remains under the influence of reductionism.
Substitutes for the whole person and for the relationships necessary to be whole tend to be the last areas to change not only because they are the most threatening but also because it is easy to confuse their forms of simulation and illusion for “the real thing.” This becomes especially problematic when our perceptual-interpretive framework tends to equate quantitative forms for qualitative substance (as in “masquerade,” cf. 2 Cor 11:13-15) and fails to distinguish whether there is any quality in the quantity (for example, statistics of church growth). When we use such a framework to prescribe and assess change, we are predisposed to reduce the whole of God.
Interestingly, at the Jerusalem council, Peter defined God as the one “who knows the heart” (kardiognostes, searcher of hearts, Acts 15:8) yet did not account for this truth in his own relationships. Furthermore, while the forms of behavior may be impeccable, God assesses the involvement of our heart in that behavior (Mt 15:8). As discussed in Chapter 1, the function of the heart constitutes the whole person, so the whole is not engaged without heart involvement. Measuring the distance we keep from our heart and the extent of heart involvement in our relationships are inherent to the qualitative framework of the whole of God because this is what matters most to God, signifying who, what and how the triune God is.
Consequently, in its claim of the whole the church needs to shift to the qualitative perceptual-interpretive framework of the whole of God in order to fully prescribe and assess the changes necessary to be whole, for example, in spiritual formation and community formation and their underlying identity formation. This necessitates the church distinguishing clearly between the change of transformation (metamorphoo, the fundamental inner-out change of the whole person, 2 Cor 3:18) from the merely outward changes of form (metaschematizo, denotes only outward change, which as a reductionist substitute can be mistaken for the redemptive change of transformation, 2 Cor 11:13-15). The simulation or illusion of so-called transformative—a current buzzword tending to involve metaschematizo more than metamorphoo—change functions in what we do by taking on a role (hypokrisis, acting out a different identity, which Paul exposed Peter doing, Gal 2:13) without the qualitative significance of heart, thus in effect functioning (even unintentionally) just as a “masquerade” (metaschematizo).
Without enforcing this vital distinction of change,
church practice is unable to account for redemptive change in its
midst. The Spirit engages only in the relational work (top-down
causation) of metamorphoo (2 Cor 3:18) and constitutes the
church only as God’s family (Eph 2:21, 22; Rom 8:15, 16). If church
practice is to be compatible in working cooperatively with the
Spirit in this relational process, it needs to address and confront
reductionist substitutes (and bottom-up causation) and must undergo
the redemptive changes necessary to be the whole of God’s family.
The two issues of how we define the person and how we do relationships, and thus church, further involve three vital aspects for all practice: (1) the presentation of our self to others (the veracity of who is presented), (2) the content of our communication (the qualitative substance of what is communicated), and (3) the level of relationship we engage (the qualitative extent of how we’re involved). As we examine these three aspects of practice along with the two issues involved in church practice, we can better understand if how we do church is the relational function of the whole of God or has shifted to a reductionist substitute. This process includes examining the compatibility of church practice with the relationship of God in by what and how God does all relationships, discussed in the last chapter.
The relational significance of the incarnation of the Word revealed the qualitative substance necessary to express these vital aspects of practice in the likeness of the whole of God. Jesus disclosed the nothing-less-and-no-substitutes whole of God. By directly and openly sharing his whole person (the presentation of his self), he communicated the very heart of God (the content of his communication) and made himself vulnerable for intimate relationships (the level of relationship engaged). In other words, Jesus engaged the whole of other persons in the only way God does relationships: nothing less than heart-to-heart involvement for intimate relationships—which contradicts any aspect of practice “to be apart” and for which there is no substitute.
If Jesus had not vulnerably disclosed his person and intimately engaged his followers for relationship together, we would not have the deeper ontological reality and qualitative epistemological basis for truly knowing and experiencing the whole of God constituted in the Trinity. We have to grasp this as a function of relationship, not a function of doctrine or theology though they are important as a basis for the relationship. This is not the informed result of quantifying God’s self-revelation but the relational outcome of God’s loving response to our condition “to be apart” from the whole.
When the incarnation is perceived as only a miraculous event or act, there is reductionism of God’s loving response. The act may still be described as loving but God’s response is perceived with less relational significance. When the incarnation is perceived merely as the revelation of God to quantify in propositions for theological foundationalism, there is reductionism of the whole of the person Jesus presented and reductionism of the content of the whole of God disclosed in the communication shared during his engagement of his followers in intimate relationship. This challenges how we see God’s revelation and thus what we do with God’s self-disclosure in the presentation of Jesus’ person and in the content of his communication, the qualitative substance of which is relationally significant and specific only for intimate relationship together. God’s revelation and truth are only for this relationship.
When Jesus told the Father in his formative prayer “I have revealed you to those” (Jn 17:6)—signifying the completion of the relational work the Father gave him to do (17:4)—he defined for his followers the full meaning and purpose of the incarnation and God’s revelation. He used the term for “reveal” (phaneroo, to make known, show openly) which is synonymous with another Greek term apokalypto (to reveal, remove a lid), yet with an important difference we need to embrace. While apokalypto points only to the object revealed, phaneroo engages the relational process to address those to whom the revelation is made. Certainly Jesus apokalypto the whole of God and fully exegeted the Father (exegeomai, Jn 1:18). Yet phaneroo completes the purpose for God’s self-disclosure in the incarnation of the Son as the relational process only for the life eternal of intimately knowing the whole of God as family constituted in the Trinity (Jn 17:2, 26). Simply stated, God’s revelation communicates relational messages from him to us for the purpose of relationship together. As the hermeneutical and functional keys, Jesus opens the door to the whole of God for relationship.
Moreover, Jesus challenged the reductionism of his
disciples just prior to his prayer in order for them to grasp, that
in being “the Way, the Truth and the Life” (Jn 14:6) his life is
about relationship together, his truth is only for this
relationship, his way is just to this relationship—nothing less and
no substitutes. We need to embrace and take to heart for our
practice that God only vulnerably presents the whole of his Self and
communicates the quality of his heart to be lovingly involved with
us for the sole purpose to engage our hearts in intimate
relationship together as his family, the whole of God. All church
practice converges in these three aspects of practice and becomes
compatible in response to God’s phaneroo when not substituted
for by reductionism.
The church is ongoingly challenged not
to reduce the who, what, and how of God’s revelation. As followers
of Jesus, the church tends to practice the same reductionism as his
first disciples by reducing Jesus’ self-disclosure to his teachings
and ministry examples (namely as a servant), thus diminishing the
whole of his person. This reduces discipleship to following his
teachings, not his person, following his examples of servanthood,
not personhood. This defines Jesus as a teacher and not a whole
person to be involved with, defines him as a servant and not the Son
to be involved with together as family. This reduces discipleship
merely to what we do for Christ rather than being who and what we
are in relationship with Christ, focusing on how to serve rather
than how to be involved in
When we reduce following the whole of Jesus to only parts of him, no matter how sincere and rigorous we engage in his service and mission we can expect the same relational consequence as his first disciples: “Don’t you know me” (Jn 14:9). The disciples had yet to grasp that earlier Jesus clearly defined the paradigm for serving that counters reductionist substitutes: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, my servant will also be” (Jn 12:26). Just as “follow me” were the fundamental first (Mk 1:17) and last words (Jn 21:22) which Jesus told Peter, this imperative defines the process of discipleship as totally a relational imperative. This paradigm defines further the necessary condition to serve him. As previously discussed, Jesus used the term for “serve” (diakoneo) that comes from the word for minister, deacon, servant (diakonos). What is vital for his followers to grasp is that diakoneo emphasizes the work to be done, not the relationship between them. Note this important distinction between the work and the relationship—a basic issue faced by Adam and Eve in the primordial garden, discussed previously—that deals with reductionism.
In the relational imperative and this paradigm for serving, Jesus communicated directly to his followers that in order to serve him it is not sufficient for us to focus “on the work to be done,” or on related situations and circumstances—that is, reductionist parts—no matter how dedicated we are or how good our intentions. Contrary to many notions of serving, even aspects of a servant model, service is not what being a disciple is all about. While service results from it, being a disciple does not mean service first nor involve serving as the primary priority.
The first priority in this paradigm is the relational priority of intimate involvement with Christ (“where I am my servant also will be”) because Jesus does not define his followers by what they do (service or mission) but by their whole person in intimate relationship together. The necessary condition to serve Christ, and the most important priority regardless of urgent circumstances, is to be fully involved with him in the ongoing deep relational process of discipleship—that is, the intimate relationship of being with him. Reductionism redefines a disciple merely by the behavior of service or ministry without the deep significance of this relationship, thus creating an epistemological illusion: outer behavior is a sufficient condition for who is presented, what is communicated and how one is involved. To be his disciples, however, is only a function of this relationship and thus by its nature necessitates being intimately involved not for service first but for the relational involvement of love (cf. Jn 13:35). This relational experience is the outcome of the ontological reality of this relationship, which cannot be simulated nor experienced apart from anything less than intimate relationship with the whole of God. This relationship is the true vocation of his disciples which church practice must be challenged to be involved in as his followers.
The primacy of intimate relationship together is
signified in the whole of God and constituted by the Trinity as
family. This is who, what and how Jesus, as the image of God,
vulnerably disclosed the whole of God to his followers and what he
asked the Father for his followers to experience together in the
whole of God’s family, which the Spirit is making a relational
reality. Anything less than the whole person (divine and human) and
any substitutes for the relationships necessary to be whole (in the
Trinity and the church) are reductionism—a condition and practice in
which “it is not good for the church to be apart” because anything
else we present, communicate and are involved in do not have
relational significance to the whole of God, as well as are
incompatible with the relationship of God.
While a disciple is all about the relational process of discipleship, discipleship is not all about a disciple, nor even a gathering of individual disciples. The relational process of following Jesus involves the relational progression which leads to the redemptive act of adoption as the Father’s very own daughters and sons in his family together. The whole of this family is the fulfillment of God’s covenant promise which constitutes the gospel and what Christ saved us to in the new creation—contradicting the reductionist emphasis of good news for the individual merely in what Christ saved us from.
Throughout this study God’s response to the human condition “to be apart” from the whole of God has been the integrating thesis for God’s involvement with humankind, thus the theme for salvation history and the ultimate expectation for its eschatological conclusion. In the process of this relational progression as discussed earlier, after Jesus promised that his followers would not be left as orphans (Jn 14:18) he prayed for his followers to experience the relational reality of the whole of God’s family as constituted in the Trinity (Jn 17:6-26).
Given God’s ongoing response, Jesus’ redemptive relational work and prayer and the relational purpose for the Spirit’s continual presence, each church is confronted with the decision that functionally defines its existence. By its practice, each church decides either to take up its relational responsibility as the whole of God’s family or to assume the function of a gathering of orphans in effect as an orphanage. This either-or decision is directly correlated to a church’s perspective on and extent of practice in the condition “to be apart.” Whether a church gives functional priority to this relational responsibility of family or subordinates it with other church functions, there is no intermediate position for church practice that functionally defines its existence. We either are engaging the relational process of the whole of God or are apart from its relational function—no neutral practice, though certainly the relational process is not always consistent in practice.
The metaphor of “church as an orphanage” is descriptive of any gathering of Christ’s followers who remain in some condition “to be apart” as relational or emotional orphans—gathering even with good intentions or for a missional purpose. An orphanage can provide organizational membership, group identity in joint activities, and it may even simulate belonging in a limited sense of community. Yet biological orphans would have no illusions that this would substitute for belonging to an authentic family. The same awareness cannot be said for most relational and emotional orphans in the church.
Jesus defined the reciprocal relational responsibility involved in relationship together without being apart as orphans (Jn 15:3-11). As discussed in “The Church in the Likeness of the Trinity,” the key term used for this process is “remain” (meno, abide, dwell) which is not a static descriptive term but a dynamic relational term involving ongoing engagement in a relational process. It is the same term Jesus used to define his disciples (Jn 8:31). Furthermore, meno is used by Jesus to distinguish the function of those in enslavement (or reductionism) from those who authentically live as God’s very own daughters and sons in his family as the relational outcome of redemptive change, therefore defining the qualitative significance of belonging (Jn 8:34, 35).
Belonging is a relational function of the whole of God—not as an organization nor even in a limited sense of community—as family constituted in and by the Trinity. While meno has a quantitative dimension of duration (permanence), Jesus emphasizes the qualitative aspect of the depth of relationship and involvement. Therefore, belonging is the relational outcome of intimately experiencing the relational reality of being God’s very own together as family (Jn 14:23, "home" mone from meno). This experience may be simulated with good intentions or may be perceived with illusions but authentic belonging cannot be substituted for. Nor should church practice be accountable for anything less—just as Jesus held accountable the churches of Ephesus (Rev 2:2-4), Sardis (Rev 3:2), and Laodicea (Rev 3:15, 16).
What renders a church effectively an orphanage are its reductionist practices of relationships without the primacy of intimacy and its reductionist definition (perception) of the person functioning apart (or distant) from the whole person signified by the importance of the heart. Even though church as orphanage can be a refuge for those who are apart—as orphanages historically have served for those without family—this practice is still a reductionist substitute for the relational responsibility as the whole of God’s family. God holds his people accountable for his created design and purpose for relationships, to be his covenant people, to live in the new creation of his family—that is, accountable to relationally respond back to the whole of God as the Trinity, whose trinitarian persons are intimately involved with us. Settling for anything less puts us in tension or conflict with God’s desires and with what matters most to God.
Jesus was in ongoing conflict with the main reductionists of his time—notably the scribes and Pharisees who reduced religious practice to following a code and focused on fulfilling the outer behavior (instead of relationships) deemed necessary for the covenant, while acting out a role (note Jesus’ polemic in the Sermon on the Mount, Mt 5-7). The disciples in general and Peter in particular, as discussed earlier, were in ongoing tension with Jesus because of their tendency to have distance from their heart and to maintain relational distance from the vulnerable heart of Jesus. Consequently, they did not intimately know Jesus (and thus the Father) despite their membership as his first disciples, and all their shared activities and time together. When Jesus had warned them of “the yeast of the Pharisees” (Mt 16:5; Lk 12:1), he addressed their reductionism in some degree of practice “to be apart.” Later, of course, he directly confronted their reductionism (Jn 14:1-9). As a group, the early disciples essentially functioned as relational orphans serving in an orphanage during Jesus’ earthly life. It was not until after Christ’s ascension that they decisively took up their relational responsibility as the whole of God’s family.
Certainly the arrival of the Spirit’s presence and work can explain the redemptive changes undergone by the early disciples. Yet this does not eliminate the necessary reciprocal relational work of Christ’s followers in cooperative engagement with the Spirit, for which the church is accountable in the trinitarian relational context of family to practice, to nurture and to extend by the trinitarian relational process of family love.
For authentic followers of Jesus, to function as orphans together is a contradiction of being in relationship with Christ and is not an option for practice in our relationships. Nor is following Jesus in the relational progression as his new kinship family optional. In his study of the NT house church Roger Gehring observes that the image Jesus preferred for the new people of God was the eschatological family of God. He concludes that this was most likely because family of God best communicated the theological essence of what Jesus was trying to impart. With further use of social history, Joseph Hellerman examines the social organization of the pre-Constantinian house churches to find that from first-century Palestine to third-century Carthage the church was a surrogate kinship family whose members understood themselves to be the sons and daughters of God.
We can add that the function of this new kinship family (not necessarily in the form of a house church) is the necessary practice of God’s people everywhere and how to do church anywhere regardless of its tradition, even in the twenty-first century Western world. Christian community formation (past, present or future) is more significant than a house, a household or even a conventional family, as our study will discuss shortly. The church as family in likeness of the Trinity is a new creation unlike any gathering experienced before, even as covenant people of God. And as transformed persons involved in transformed relationships with family love, the practice of this new relational process raises issues for us which need to be resolved both as individuals and as a church family.
When church practice accounts for this reciprocal
relational responsibility, as seen with the early disciples, it
becomes the apostolic church as the whole of God’s family, not an
orphanage of those still functioning apart. No human person was more
instrumental in establishing the church as the whole of God’s family
than the apostle Paul. We need to examine briefly Paul’s account of
the church, yet more so in his practice as a disciple than in
doctrine as a theologian.
The practice of God’s Word was always subject to reductionism in the early church, even its ministry. In counteracting reductionism in the church at Corinth, Paul declared that his ministry team did not “distort the word of God” (2 Cor 4:2); the Greek term doloo means to adulterate, dilute, water down, cheapen (e.g., as merchants used to do with wine). Contrary to what apparently was a norm in that period, they also did not “peddle the word of God for profit” (2 Cor 2:17). The term for “peddle” (kapeleuo) means to merchandise it, treat it like a commodity and utilize it for one’s own ends. These reductions basically serve to popularize the Word and make it more palatable for a prevailing perceptual framework—similar to what we see in Western Christian culture and church practice today, particularly in the U.S.
Yet Paul could ensure the integrity of his interpretative framework and practice of the Word from reductionism because of redemptive change in his life. Previously in his life, the Word of God was merely a code-book to follow rigorously (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Then he encountered the Word revealed to him directly in a relational experience (Acts 9:1-19; 22:3-16; 26:9-18). Jesus took Saul’s persecution personally, not situationally. That is, he made it relationally between Paul and him (“Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me”); in doing so, he established with Paul the relational context and process of the whole of God.
It was this experience that changed Paul’s understanding of the Word from a code-book to God’s self-disclosure “in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6) to follow wholly for relationship. This was more than a paradigm shift in perspective but more significantly a transformation of Paul’s person which defined his theology. The revelation of God is for relationship, which is further understood because Paul’s life and theology increasingly demonstrated the full functional resolve and relational outcome of God’s response to our condition “to be apart” by defining the whole of who was included in God’s family, what his family was all about and how this family functioned. Jesus disclosed himself to Paul for this purpose, both for him individually and for the corporate community of God’s people (Acts 26:16-18).
It was from this direct relational experience with the Word that Paul became a disciple, the terms of which were still determined by the discipleship Jesus established during his earthly life. Paul’s following of Jesus may be disputed because of his lack of quoting Christ in his epistles. This raises various questions: was Paul only interested in the Christ event (his death and resurrection plus his return) and not in his teachings, or did Paul lack knowledge of his teachings; did his lack indicate he only saw Jesus as savior and not as teacher in the rabbinic tradition, or indicate that he didn’t really follow Jesus as a disciple? I suggest Paul was a follower of Jesus in the discipleship Jesus redefined for his disciples and the terms for adherence to him as teacher, which contrasted with other disciples in the rabbinic tradition as students. In contrast to a reductionist substitute of merely following teachings, Paul followed the person Jesus. Moreover, the God this person disclosed—“the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Cor 4:6) who is the very image of God (4:4)—is the whole of God as the Trinity. Paul followed Jesus in this relational progression to the whole of God, so it is the Trinity, not Christ alone, who claims the center of God’s glory, the purpose for the church and their eschatological work.
From the lens of this discipleship framework, we need to understand Paul’s transformation and calling. To serve Jesus is to follow him and following him is a function only of relationship with him, not of service for him (Jn 12:26). Nor can the whole of Jesus’ person be reduced merely to his teachings, which may suggest in part why Paul rarely quoted Jesus nor referred directly to his teachings very much. The priority of relationship is understood in Paul’s major focus to be “in Christ” (e.g., Rom 8:1; 1 Cor 1:30; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 1:22;5:6; Eph 1:13) which is central to his theology not as a code to follow as in his former life but as the whole person (“the image of the invisible God,” Col 1:15) to be involved with for relationship together in a new life. The qualitative difference between his former and new life is definitive in the relational significance of Paul’s desire “to know Christ” (Phil 3:4-10), coinciding with what Jesus defined as eternal life (Jn 17:3). And as reflected in Paul’s prayers, knowing Christ is not about information but the relational outcome of intimate relationship (Eph 1:17; 3:16-19). The priority and primacy of intimate relationship was basic to Paul’s life as a disciple and defines his theology of the whole of God as family to which Jesus called him (cf. Eph 4:12, 13). While his epistles lack quantitative reference to Christ’s teaching, Paul demonstrated the qualitative significance of Christ and following him in the whole of God.
Paul’s initial relational experience with Jesus on the Damascus road was the defining moment both for his life and theology, the thrust of which became conclusive for fully determining how God responded to the human condition “to be apart” and what Christ saved us to. To understand the connections involved here we have to grasp the relational process of the whole of God.
While Paul’s Damascus road encounter with Jesus traditionally has been understood as a conversion experience, a recent shift in interpretation would describe the same experience as Paul’s unique call to be apostle to the Gentiles. A call seems to fit the narrative situation rather than a conversion. Yet more than a traditional conversion but a transformation was necessary to fulfill the call, which Jesus obviously understood and certainly was not overlooking in that encounter. If he did, this would imply that serving was a priority over the relationship, in which the relationship could be on Paul’s terms. Ananias set the record straight by essentially defining for Paul what was necessary to follow Jesus (Acts 22:16). This included transformation (“wash your sins away,” apolouo, which Paul clearly connects later to “sanctified” and “justified” in 1 Cor 6:11) and relational involvement (“calling on his name,” epikaleio), plus taking on the new identity reflecting these redemptive changes (“be baptized”). The latter was not merely a new ritual to replace old practices but the substantive expression of qualitative change (cf. Rom 10:10).
In other words, Paul was both transformed and called. To focus on one at the expense of the other is a reductionist attempt to categorize Paul’s experience into a part separated from the whole. Yet they are inseparable in the relational process involving the whole of God’s response not only for Paul’s life but for all of God’s people. Furthermore, the call to discipleship is not optional to transformation “in Christ” nor is functional participation in Christ’s body voluntary. Relationship with Christ determines both identity and function. It was this relationship and the intimate experience of God in it which transformed Paul and saved him to the whole of God’s covenant family. Paul’s theology unfolds in the relational context and process of the whole of the Trinity.
To understand Paul the theologian we need to grasp the relational significance of Paul as a disciple. As commonly experienced in transformations, the practice (religious and cultural) of Paul’s former life represented not only a point of tension but direct conflict with his new life in Christ. All that was associated with his former life (namely Judaism, Gal 1:14; Phil 3:4-6) factors into the central theology Paul presents. Yet Paul was not merely substituting a different belief system for Judaism. I suggest that what his former life and Judaism represent is a variation of reductionism. In counteracting the reductionism underlying the contextual issue of Judaism—as well as other variations, for example, in early forms of Gnosticism—Paul formulated theology which is relationship-specific to the whole of God and God’s response to those who are apart from the whole. Certainly Paul can speak on this matter from direct personal experience. Even more important than his former life, therefore, is to understand that what factors more deeply into his theology is the relational significance of God’s response and the whole of the new life which Paul claims for his whole person and experiences in the relationships necessary to be whole. We need to account for this in the corpus of Pauline theology and thus in church practice as followers of Christ.
The death and resurrection of Christ were not about mere event for Paul but the absolute means relationally necessary for the relational end to be “in Christ,” thus Paul’s dominant focus on what can be confused as event apart from the whole of Christ. Likewise, Paul’s view of the Law and justification by grace are certainly in conflict with Judaism but even more so counteract reductionism. Yet his theology was not designed to be divisive—though certainly formulated in a context of tension and conflict—but reconciling, restoring to the whole of God. His teachings focused on the tension and conflict with reductionism—just as Jesus did throughout his earthly life—and the reductionist substitute of “parts” determining the whole (bottom-up causation) in a process of justification by works. Paul understood how this reductionist system was based in prevailing incorrect or incomplete perceptions of the Law which in reality prevented wholeness, because he was previously enslaved in the system.
Analyzing the different aspects of Paul’s theology separately fails to help us understand his theological resolve to operationalize the qualitative-interpretive framework which embraces the whole person signified by the importance of the heart (Col 2:2, 3) and the necessary relationships of the whole of God as his new covenant family (Eph 2:11-22). This was his calling (along with his transformation) which was always in the context of his relational experience with God (see also Acts 22:17-21; 23:11; cf. 2 Cor 12:1-4). His theological resolve—and his passion seen, for example, in 2 Corinthians—emerged from his relational involvement as a disciple. His theology then was not about rational proclamation (denoted by the Gk. term lego) of propositional truths but about simply sharing (in contrast to lego, denoted by the term laleo in Col 4:3) the qualitative and relational significance of the whole of God found in the mystery of Christ by making known relationally to others (denoted by phaneroo, not apokalypto as discussed earlier, in Col 4:4, rendered “proclaim clearly” in NIV) God’s self-disclosure—just as God revealed relationally to Paul.
Paul formulated his theology and understood the whole of the gospel by piecing together the various relational experiences of God’s self-disclosure to him. God’s revelation is always for relationship in the integrating thesis of his response to the human condition “to be apart,” which Paul grasped as God’s thematic action since Abraham (Rom 4) yet was determined by God’s desires even before creation (Eph 1:4, 5; Rom 8:29). Unlike Jesus’ early disciples who did not piece together his self-disclosures (as discussed previously about syniemi in Mk 8:17) and thus really did not know him (cf. Jn 14:9), Paul claims full comprehension (using the related term synesis in Col 2:2) of the mystery of God (Eph 3:3). Despite what may appear to be self study (Gal 1:16, 17), this was not the rational conclusion of a process of reason but the relational outcome from the cooperative involvement of Paul’s whole person signified by his heart (Rom 10:10) with the relational work of the Spirit (whose purpose is described by Paul in 1 Cor 2:10-13; Eph 1:17-19; 3:16-19). Connecting these texts yields the relational process of the heart-to-heart involvement of intimacy constituted in the Trinity and the basic nature of the whole of God’s response to us.
From this experiential base of direct revelation Paul proceeded to fulfill the purpose of the whole of God and to provide theological coherence for church practice as the whole of God’s family. This purpose was outlined in Colossians 1:25-2:4 and was always in conflict with reductionism of the word of God (doloo in 2 Cor 4:2). Whether it was Judaism or early forms of gnostic philosophy on the reductionist side, Paul was entrusted with the responsibility (“commission” in Col 1:25 and “administration” in Eph 3:2 rendering the same term, oikonomia, which involves managing the affairs of a household—the whole of God’s family) for the whole of God’s word: “to present . . . in its fullness” (one term, pleroo, meaning fully or complete, i.e., without reduction, Col 1:25) the mystery of God revealed to Paul (Col 1:26; Eph 3:3), which is all about God’s response to our condition “to be apart” from the whole and now “in Christ” can be part of the whole of God’s family (Col 1:27; Eph 3:6) and thus be whole, complete (teleios rendered “perfect” in Col 1:29).
This is the gospel Paul struggled for in conflict with reductionism (Col 1:29-2:1; Eph 3:7; Gal 2:5, 14; cf. Rom 16:25, 26). This gospel is the gospel of the whole of God which Paul boldly confronted Peter with as the only truth of the gospel. The practice of anything less Paul identified as simply role-playing (hypokrisis, Gal 2:11-14)—that is, essentially a reductionist substitute without both the qualitative significance of heart and the relational significance of the whole of God’s family. Paul was entrusted with the responsibility (oikonomia) for God’s family and the integrity of its whole. This was not a theological responsibility but a relational responsibility. While Paul formulated critical theology about salvation, justification, sanctification, pneumatology, eschatology, he was not focused on the theological task but rather intensely engaged in the family “business” of building God’s family. With the various aspects of his theology, Paul provided the theological coherence for church practice as the whole of God’s family to be operationalized in family process, in what can be called “ecclesiology of the whole.”
As a disciple, Paul’s purpose then for the followers
of Christ was further summarized (in Col 2:2, 3): “that they may be
encouraged in heart [signifying the whole person] and united in love
[intimately involved together in the relationships of family love
necessary to be whole as constituted in the Trinity] so that they
may have the full riches of complete understanding [the qualitative
perceptual-interpretive framework of the whole for synesis,
making the connections to comprehend] in order that they may know [epignosis,
perceive and know specifically] the mystery of God, namely Christ
[the qualitative depth of God in the face of Christ] in whom are
hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge [the qualitative
whole of who, what and how God is].”
Moreover Paul defined how this relational responsibility needs to be fulfilled (in Col 4:3, 4): “that we may proclaim [laleo, simply speaking, sharing and not about theological discourse and reason, lego] the mystery of Christ [Christ’s self-revelation is not about information to inform us of God but for us to have intimate relationship with him to know God, which cannot be sufficiently proclaimed merely by intellectual expression of content from the mind but necessitates the qualitative significance of the heart] . . . that I may proclaim it clearly [phaneroo, discussed earlier, focuses on those to whom the revelation is made, thus engaging a relational process] as I should [communicating, laleo, by its nature, dei, as opposed to obligation or compulsion].” That is, communicating (laleo) the whole of God is a relational function (phaneroo and not merely apokalypto), therefore must by its nature (dei) be compatible with how Jesus shared relationally with us—vulnerably with his heart for intimate connection (cf. Jn 17:26). Anything less or any substitutes are reductionism.
This indicates how Paul defined the whole person with the qualitative significance of the heart and how he practiced relationships in the primacy of intimacy. Both are necessary in order to be compatible with how Jesus functioned and thus continue the relational progression Jesus established for the church to function “with Christ” as his followers and “in Christ” as the whole of his family (cf. Eph 4:12, 13). What Paul presented of his self, shared in his communication and engaged in relationally define further that by its nature what Paul operationalized for church practice must involve the relational context of family and the relational process of family love as constituted in the Trinity. All of this involves the whole of God and how God’s response to our condition “to be apart” from his whole coheres in the ecclesiology of the whole. This ecclesiology is the focus of the next chapter.
A full theology of discipleship is discussed in my study The Relational Progression: A Relational Theology of Discipleship (Discipleship Study, 2004) on this website.
Roger W. Gehring, House Church and Mission: The Importance of Household Structure in Early Christianity (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2004), 47.
 Joseph H. Hellerman, The Ancient Church as Family (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001).
For a deeper discussion on how Jesus defined discipleship see The Relational Progression.
For a summary of this discussion see Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, Daniel G. Reid, eds. Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 156-163.
©2006 T. Dave Matsuo, Ph.D.