Sunday, February 20, 2011

Altering Ethos: The Mystical Union

Who cares about the theology of the church?

Before we can do and be the body of Christ, we have to understand what it is according to God. This is one of the biggest barriers to successful body life today: failure to understand what the body of Christ is. It would be a huge mistake to skip this section of the book. Author Mark Driscoll recently commented that at a pastors’ conference on the church he found that none of the pastors in his group could give a coherent definition of what the church is!

My experience is similar. People want to bypass this part and get to the question of methods. But trying to implement organic church principles without understanding what God teaches about the body of Christ will result in confusion, frustration, and probably failure.

Our mystical union with Jesus

In the book of Romans, Paul explains that we are identified with Jesus’ death and resurrection, and therefore we should present ourselves to God as those alive from the dead (Romans 6:13). This union with Jesus, this new position we have in Christ, is one of the most important, but often poorly understood, teachings in the New Testament.

Theologians call it the “mystical union” of believers with Christ. Our mystical union is very profound--not just a metaphor or a picture. It refers to something real; in some ways it’s more real than our temporal lives here. To be “in Christ” is to be united with him now and forever. Paul says, “The person who is joined to the Lord is one spirit with him” (1 Corinthians 6:17 See also Romans 8:1, 9; 16:11; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 2:13; 5:30; 2 Peter 1:4). As theologian Charles Hodge said, “No doctrine of the Bible, relating to the plan of salvation, is more plainly taught or more wide reaching than that which concerns the union between Christ and his people.”

Our oneness with Jesus describes how God looks at us: he sees us in his Son. That means what is true of Jesus becomes true of us in the eyes of God. God directly links many of his most important New Testament promises to this spiritual union with Jesus. Notice how the authors of the New Testament use the term “in Christ,” “in the beloved,” “in him,” or similar expressions nearly 200 times.

What does this have to do with the church?

In Romans 12 we learn that the mystical union not only affects our identity as individuals, but also corporately, as the people of God:

For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another (v. 4-5)
This passage, like others, says that the same mystical union that makes us one with Jesus also makes us one with each other, or “members one of another.” The mystical union operates horizontally as well as vertically. This is why the New Testament calls believers “the body of Christ.” It’s much more than an illustration. The mystical union of believers is a divine fact: we are individually members, not only of Christ, but also of one another.

Why does Paul, in this same context, urge all-out commitment to Jesus, like when he says a couple of verses earlier, “present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship” (12:1)? What does that have to do with verses 4 and 5? Just this:

Commitment to Jesus is commitment to his body!

These are not two separate things, but one and the same. We are not just members of Christ. We are also members of one another. We cannot commit our lives to Jesus without also committing to the people of God. If we think we are totally committed to Jesus, we had better plan on all-out commitment to his body as well.

Anyone who truly understands the mystical union realizes that each of our lives has been joined to the body of Christ in a very profound way. Whether we live that truth out in any visible or tangible way here on earth is another question. But God has already settled the issue: “We are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
Think about these provocative words from Watchman Nee's classic, The Normal Christian Life:
This [corporate unity] is the very opposite of man’s condition by nature. In Adam, I have the life of Adam, but that is essentially individual. There is no union, no fellowship in sin, but only self-interest and distrust of others....
Yes, the Cross must do its work here, reminding me that in Christ I have died to that old life of independence which I inherited from Adam, and that in resurrection I have become not just an individual believer in Christ but a member of his Body. There is a vast difference between the two. When I see this, I shall at once have done with independence and shall seek fellowship. The life of Christ in me will gravitate to the life of Christ in others. I can no longer take an individual line. Jealousy will go. Competition will go. Private work will go. My interests, my ambitions, my preferences, all will go. It will no longer matter which of us does the work. All that will matter will be that the Body grows. I said: “When I see this...” That is the great need: to see the Body of Christ as another great divine fact; to have it break in upon our spirits by heavenly revelation that “we, who are many, are one body in Christ.” Only the Holy Spirit can bring this home to us in all its meaning, but when he does, it will revolutionize our life and work.
Do American Christians grasp their corporate identity in Christ? I have my doubts. Today, church is something you go to on Sunday, not something that you are. I know the church has to assemble, so maybe I’m being too fussy, but I don’t think so. I think we view the church as something external to ourselves, something I might go to if I have the time, something ‘over there.’ We tend to see churches as things we attend or join, or even as a building.

Instead, we should see the church as something I’m a part of, and whether I’m assembling with one group or another, or even if I haven’t been assembling at all, doesn’t change anything. Christians who fully grasp the mystical union see things in a fundamentally different light. All that we expect and all that we do in the church grows out of our understanding of what the church is.

Practical outworking of the mystical union

Few theological teachings have more impact on our view of the church than that about our mystical union with Jesus. If people come to view their church the way God views it, the other points raised in the New Testament follow naturally. As we will see, an organic ethos depends on an organic definition of the church rather than an institutional, structural, or corporate definition. In a word, the essence of the church is spiritual and inward, not external.

Some readers may think this is too abstract and theological to make a difference. Wrong! It does make a difference and a huge one. What the church does grows directly out of what the church is. For instance, why would Christians in a healthy church consider other member’s lives to be their business? Shouldn’t they focus on their own lives and let others live theirs? Why would we conclude that every single member in the church should develop a personal ministry? Why think that if one member is built up, all of us will improve? The answer to all these and many others is the same--“we are individually members of one another.”

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Ethos Part 2: Altering a Church's Ethos

Ethos is powerful. You've probably seen it yourself. One group is demoralized and distracted. They don't seem to know for sure why they show up. Another group is crackling with energy; people can't wait to serve. In one group, people are puzzled when someone doesn't want to go all out for God. People in another group are just as puzzled by full commitment. During the next series of posts, we will examine how leaders assess and lead change in group ethos.

A group’s ethos can be altered. You see this all the time when formerly powerful and lively churches turn drab and decline. You see the opposite as well. But just as rocks roll downhill rather than up, a church’s ethos tends to slide downward unless it is carefully nurtured and even re-inserted at times.

Maintaining good ethos isn’t easy--both during “in season” and “out of season” times. Leaders and members have to watch sensitively for shifts in people’s attitudes and outlooks and be ready to reassert truth. Otherwise, they may soon find themselves in a group that is nothing like the one they used to belong to or lead.

Changing a group’s ethos from something negative to something exciting and biblical is a major project. It involves a lot of work and time--maybe even a fight. But the payoff is awesome! In a group with a healthy ethos, people take upon themselves the tasks involved in building up the church without being asked. Initiative replaces inertia. Generous out-giving love can become so commonplace that people can’t imagine a group without it. Instead of leaders endlessly pleading to heedless members, they will find themselves scrambling just to keep up with the rapid movement of events and the urgent need for equipping.

The Bible and ethos

Since a group’s ethos includes both objective beliefs (belief in truths that stand whether we believe them or not) and subjective values or interpretations, we cannot easily turn to passages in the Bible that set us straight in these areas. However, the Bible is not silent on the subject.

New Testament churches had an ethos of their own, and some of that is embodied in explicit precepts or instructions we should follow. By reading carefully, we can detect other aspects not explicitly taught but demonstrated by example, and we should seriously consider trying to incorporate those as well.

Notice how the ethos was different in various New Testament local churches. Compare the ethos in Corinth with that in Jerusalem in Acts 2-7 and you see a striking difference. Notice how a strong group like that in Philippi, developed an unusual giving ethos from the beginning and never lost it (Philippians 4:10-19), while each church addressed in Revelations two and three seem to have a different ethos.

When we see how ethos shapes every aspect of behavior and outlook in a group, the question quickly becomes, “How do we get this healthy ethos in our group?” That’s where the book, Members of One Another comes in. To build healthy group ethos, you have to have a clear picture of where you’re heading. Carefully studying what the Bible says about the church is the most important step you can take toward that goal. Then, you need practical ideas for how to move from your status quo to the new position.

The New Testament picture of church life is definitely possible today. We are not talking here about something exotic that God reserves for the few. This outlook is God's will for all of us. If we don’t have it, that’s probably because we’ve departed from his teaching, or have accepted definitions and values that come from our modern, individualistic culture.

Consumer Christianity

In the modern west, the definition we most likely have imbibed (often without realizing it) is a consumer version of Christianity.

When you go to the store, you’re a consumer. You’re looking for something. You know you’ll have to pay for what you get, but the point is you want some things and they had better be good. If the products are lacking or over-priced, you’ll probably go to the competitor’s store next time. The store is there to provide things you want.

When the consumer mentality goes to church, nothing changes. The question for the Christian consumer is always the same: What’s in it for me? A church might “meet my needs,” or maybe we hear rumors that a different church down the road is better.

Church leaders realize they have to compete--who will provide the biggest blessing? Who can make people feel most satisfied with the weekend’s program? Who will put on the most impressive performance?

The New Testament picture of the church is incompatible with this consumer perspective. God declares in his word that the community of God is a gathering where I go intending to give out, not to receive. To the extent I do receive blessing, that’s only so I’ll be better equipped to serve. Instead of existing to “meet my needs,” the body of Christ exists to equip me to meet others’ needs. Ironically, according to Jesus, I will probably feel better in an out-giving, ministry-oriented church, but that’s incidental. My focus needs to be on self-sacrifice, as Jesus explains:

If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it (Luke 9:23-24).
This passage and its many parallels in scripture may well refer to one of the least understood concepts in western Christianity today. Nothing could be further from the consumer concept. Experiencing what Jesus describes will be very costly. There will be sacrifice. Taking up a cross is something you do when you’re getting ready to die. A cross is a place of agony. Ease and comfort are incompatible with this picture.

If you’re a modern western Christian, you may have some things to unlearn. Your whole view of Christianity and the church may be at odds with what God teaches in some very serious ways. In Members of One Another, we examine biblical images and teaching that paint a dynamic picture of the community of God, and those pictures may contradict what you have assumed so far.

If you just want reassurance that all is well with the western church as it is today, you probably won’t enjoy this book. But if your heart longs for something deeper, this could be a good first step toward actually experiencing what God has in mind for you.