Toward a More Robust Unity

One of the things I love about my Stone-Campbell heritage is its emphasis on unity. I’ve grown up hearing sermons about unity, participating in classes about unity, reading books on unity, articles about unity, and surrounded by people who are genuinely passionate about unity. This is good, after all, as we are quick to point out that Jesus claims the world will know who he is by witnessing our unity.

For all this talk of unity, however, there is one particular danger we have sometimes fallen into. Namely, we are often guilty of promoting unity without first understanding what the New Testament means by the notion, which can lead in some unhealthy directions in spite of our (very) good intentions.

We often want to talk about unity as if it were a horizontal thing brought into being when we agree with one another. This view of unity is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that agreement with one another does nothing to guarantee we’re agreeing on the right things. On the whole, if our view of unity entails us agreeing on everything we’re talking about uniformity, not unity.

For Paul, we didn’t create unity and it was rooted in something rather more robust than fanciful notions of comprehensive agreement. For Paul, Jesus creates unity on the cross and it falls to us to live in light of the reality he created.

This is a major theme in Ephesians. For instance, in 1:9-10, Paul says God is revealing the “mystery of his will … a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and that he is doing this in Jesus. He returns to this theme, discussing it at more length beginning in 2:11-22. Jesus enacts God’s plan by going to his cross. Take a moment and read this text slowly. Take note of the division language in the text (e.g., “… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise …”) and notice the language of unity (e.g., “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall …”). Who reconciles? Who makes peace? Who tears down the walls of hostility? Who reconstitutes disparate groups as one new humanity?

Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus unifies his people, tearing down walls and bringing them together in a new reality. In chapter 3:9-10, Paul discusses his role in God’s plan climaxing with the declaration that the very existence of God’s unified people – Jew plus Gentile, plus slave, plus free, plus female, plus male, plus rich, plus poor, plus young, plus old, plus “blue collar,” plus “white collar,” plus Republican, plus Democrat, plus, plus, plus … – is the demonstration of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” to the divisive powers of the world.

This discussion is prerequisite to understanding the more explicit discussion of unity beginning in chapter 4. (After all, it begins with the crucial word therefore.) Having already established that Jesus creates unity, note carefully what Paul says. With humility and gentleness and patience, we are called to bear with one another in love. In so doing, we make every effort to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit.

This union is not the same thing as uniformity. It is more robust. Notice again that Paul says the sort of unity that Jesus creates among his people will require humility and gentleness and patience with one another. Perhaps even more tellingly, he calls us to bear with one another on the basis of our unity in the Spirit. In Tennessee, we say “bear with one another” this way: put up with one another.

That’s exactly what we’re called to do at times. We are not united because we agree on everything – or even on a smaller number of essential things. (And this is a notoriously difficult list to make, these essential things.) We are united because we are all in Christ – because we’ve each given ourselves to Christ. He is the one who tore the walls down. He is the one who ushered us into a new reality. He is the one who left us with the Spirit that holds us together. That’s perhaps especially true when we are disagreeing with one another. For Paul, unity can’t be reduced to agreement, but it does shape the way we treat one another in our disagreements.

Oh, and about agreement. I think agreement’s fine even if it isn’t the primary way of talking about unity for Paul. If you think about it for a second, when we’ve each committed ourselves to Jesus and we move toward him each day we also move closer to one another. A good many of our disagreements will be worked out over time because of this mutual movement toward Christ. Other disagreements won’t – and some won’t need to be. Either way, Jesus will teach us how to be agreeable and that makes a difference as we maintain the reality Jesus has brought us into.

Toward a More Robust Unity

I’m So Spiritual

In my (admittedly limited) experience spiritual is one of the most meaningless words in the contemporary Christian vocabulary. Anymore, the term is ubiquitous and much of its use leaves us with the nagging notion that we often don’t have a clear idea of what we mean when we use it. Perhaps more troubling, when pressed on its meaning, many of us use it in ways that are contradictory to some pretty major ideas in the New Testament.

(By the way, this includes me. I’m not picking on anyone here – and certainly not condemning. Just this last week, I went on about something being spiritual and wanted to kick myself after I caught it. As contemporary, Western Christians, it’s simply part of the cultural air we breathe.)

So, how can we talk about something or someone being spiritual in a healthier way? Let’s do a little digging.

You might be surprised to know that the word spiritual is relatively rare in the English New Testament. In the NRSV, spiritual appears 33 times in 28 verses that are almost exclusively found in four of Paul’s letters. In fact, 55% of occurrences are in 1 Corinthians alone. The primary Greek word translated spiritual is the adjective pneumatikos. It is related to the Greek word for spiritpneuma – which may be why it is so easy to assume that spiritual is the opposite of physical. (More on that later.)

Here’s how the New Testament uses pneumatikos, with each instance of the word rendered like so:

  1. Romans 1:11 – “For I am longing to see you so that I may share with you some spiritual gift to strengthen you … “
  2. Romans 7:4 – “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin.”
  3. Romans 15:27 – “They were pleased to do this, and indeed they owe it to them; for if the Gentiles have come to share in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material things.”
  4. 1 Corinthians 2:13 – “And we speak of these things in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual things to those who are spiritual.”
  5. 1 Corinthians 2:15 – “Those who are spiritual discern all things, and they are themselves subject to no one else’s scrutiny.”
  6. 1 Corinthians 3:1 – “And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.”
  7. 1 Corinthians 9:11 – “If we have sown spiritual good among you, is it too much if we reap your material benefits?”
  8. 1 Corinthians 10:1-4 – “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”
  9. 1 Corinthians 12:1 – “Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed.”
  10. 1 Corinthians 14:1 – “Pursue love and strive for the spiritual gifts, and especially that you may prophesy.”
  11. 1 Corinthians 14:47 – “Anyone who claims to be a prophet, or to have spiritual powers, must acknowledge that what I am writing to you is a command of the Lord.”
  12. 1 Corinthians 15:44-46 – “It is sown a physical body, it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a physical body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, ‘The first man, Adam, became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first, but the physical, and then the spiritual.”
  13. Ephesians 1:3 – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places …”
  14. Ephesians 5:19 – “… as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts …”
  15. Ephesians 6:12 – “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
  16. Colossians 1:9 – “For this reason, since the day we heard it, we have not ceased praying for you and asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding …”
  17. Colossians 3:16 – “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.”
  18. 1 Peter 2:4-5 – “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”

First, let’s make some observations about how Paul uses the term in 1 Corinthians, as spiritual is a relatively major topic of discussion in the epistle. In chapters two and three, Paul contrasts those who are “spiritual” with those who are “of the flesh.” Here, spiritual does not refer to something that is spirit, but something that comes from / originates from / or is rooted in the Spirit of God. Conversely, something is “of the flesh” not because it is physical but because it comes from / originates from / is rooted in that which is physical (read: not the Spirit).

By way of illustration, we might remember the way the Preacher talks of things being “under the sun” in Ecclesiastes. “Under the sun” was an idiomatic way of talking about life without God. The Preacher had been seeking meaning apart from God and found his purposes thwarted by death at every turn, so he concludes that life “under the sun” is meaningless. In 1 Corinthians 2-3, Paul is working with a similar thought. The spiritual person is the person who’s way of life originates with God’s Spirit. The fleshly person is the person who seeks a way of life apart from the Spirit. Both sorts of life are physical – they are lived out in bodies. Both sorts of life will involve similar things – eat, sleep, drink, work, play, enjoy relationships, etc. – but will go about those things in very different ways, as they begin from very different starting points.

If we begin with this idea – spiritual is that which derives from (or is driven by) God’s Spirit – we will see it makes sense of the majority of the texts in our list – particularly for the discussion in 1 Corinthians. In chapter 10, Paul points back to the time when God miraculously provided food and water for Israel. Their food was spiritual in that it came to them by the power of God’s Spirit. Of course, he connects this to the Christian communion meal. While the bread and cup come from more “material” methods the meaning and power of the meal is driven by the Spirit. (Read 9:11 in this light – even that which is not expressly spiritual [i.e. from the Spirit like manna and water flowing from a rock were] is co-opted into the spiritual life as Paul has described it. For Paul, material things are not in opposition to spiritual things, but are to be used as a part of our life driven by the Spirit of God.) Later, the “spiritual” gifts are embodied abilities and practices that came from the Spirit. In Ephesians and Colossians, the church will sing “spiritual” songs – songs anchored in the life and power of the Spirit. (This is a mark of being “filled with the Spirit” [Ephesians 5:18].)

In our current context, it is important to note that the dominant context for spiritual is an embodied experience that is rooted or driven by the Spirit.

First, while there are physical things (as in 1 Corinthians 9:11) and purely spiritual entities (as in Ephesians 6:12), God created humans as physical beings meant to live life in a spiritual context. While our underlying Platonism may lead us to think that “material” things – like bodies with all their passions, emotions, and urges – are bad, this is not so in Scripture. God created us to be embodied spiritual creatures and called us “very good.” The problem of sin and death has less to do with the fact of our bodies than it does with the distorted ways we’ve used those bodies apart from God’s Spirit. (Augustine calls these our “disordered loves.”)

Second, this helps us understand the implications of saying things like, “Jesus has a spiritual kingdom.” To my knowledge, the New Testament never makes this claim and it can only be accurate if we understand spiritual as Paul does in 1 Corinthians. The kingdom is driven by God’s Spirit, but it is very much a physical experience that pertains to the ins, outs, ups, and downs of our earthly existence. When Jesus defines the kingdom, he doesn’t define it as a thing that is separate from “the cares of this world” (as we often refer to them in the Churches of Christ), but as God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven (Matthew 6:10). (This week’s readings from the Book of Common Prayer have included Psalm 72 and the language of the poem is striking in its revelation of what God is concerned with as Sovereign.) The spiritual nature of the kingdom is not a dismissal of the world, but a radical reorientation of the way we look at the world.

Third, as we’ve already hinted, Paul’s notion of spiritual doesn’t minimize all the “secular” things we do, but reorients them. Things like prayer or worship aren’t the only spiritual activities Christians are involved in. We are called to see everything as spiritual because the entirety of our life is being reshaped by God in Christ. Shopping is spiritual. Work is spiritual. Eating is spiritual.  Rest is spiritual. Play is spiritual. Politics are spiritual. Our relationships are spiritual. Sex is spiritual. On and on this goes. These are all things established by God to be used for human flourishing within a proper relationship with him. Spiritual is not the rejection or diminishing of these things, but realizing their fullness when we place them in their proper context. (Augustine would talk about this in terms of properly reordering our loves.)

Last, and we’ll have to explore this more later, Paul gives shape to speak of our future hope. In the resurrection, we will be given spiritual bodies. This is not non-physical bodies (an oxymoron), but bodies that are fully plugged into their proper source of life – the Spirit. A common confession for Christians around the world is that we believe in “the resurrection of the body.” Confessing this within the larger story of Scripture has some pretty profound implications – both for the future and now. We’ll pick those up in the future.

I’m So Spiritual

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Sometime last year, Arnold Robledo and I did a quarter-long class called “Immigrants and Refugees in the Bible.” Preparing for this class was life-changing for both of us. Now, I can’t make any claims for myself — I stuck to the script — but Arnold outdid himself in this class. Below are the links to all 13 sessions. We need to be talking about this as we struggle for what it means to be faithful to Jesus amidst the current debates about refugees. My prayer is we will always be shaped more by Scripture than our own fears or those with governmental power.

Session One

Session Two

Session Three

Session Four

Session Five

Session Six

Session Seven

Session Eight

Session Nine

Session Ten

Session Eleven

Session Twelve

Session Thirteen

Immigrants & Refugees in the Bible

Discipleship & Church Building

Lately, I’ve put a bit of thought into what you might call my philosophy of ministry. The West is in a time of transition and churches are feeling the effects of those changes. These are times for intentionality, and it strikes me that thinking out loud about how we do business may be a healthy part of that doing things with intention. That’s what I am attempting here.

Recently someone articulated an old truism that gets to the heart of a lot of what I’ve been thinking about. “When your goal is to make disciples, you always get the church; but, when your goal is to grow the church, you won’t necessarily get disciples.”

Pretty near the heart of my ever-evolving approach to my calling is the fact that Jesus never asks us to grow churches. In fact, I tend to believe it is impossible for us to make the church grow. Growth is a by-product of life. At the very least, I tend to privilege faithfulness over growth as a metric of the church’s success. If growth is going to happen, God will bring it about.

We plant. We water. God grows.

Jesus does ask us to be and make disciples (Matthew 28:18-20). This is not the same thing as making the church grow. If discipleship is our calling, the means to our end is largely established. We are called to be a Christ-like community and invite others into that way of life. Only disciples can make other disciples. Only Christ-likeness can foster Christ-likeness in others. Our strategy is constantly leaning deeper into Jesus’ way of life, which will inevitably put us in the path of our neighbors, working for their blessing, reconciliation, and healing as Jesus did for those around him.

If church growth is our purpose, we can do that by being and making Christ-like disciples. However, there are any number of other strategies I might employ (and churches do employ) that neglect or ignore discipleship and Christ-likeness. For instance, a growing group of anxious people enamored with the control that legalism and fundamentalism offers is never healthy, no matter how fast their numbers go up.

What I’m suggesting is that if my goal is to get more people, there are lots of ways to do that. I can stir up their fears over our changing world and offer them security in a nostalgic return to the way things used to be. We might master the art of manipulating emotions so that each gathering provides a euphoric, mountain-top experience. We might tap into the consumerism of our age, analyze our market, and cater to their whims and desires as a spiritual box store.

While these strategies, and any number of others may draw a crowd, it will not produce disciples. And, producing disciples is what we’ve been put here for.

I don’t mean that, as some assume, a growing church is a bad church. I am not suggesting emotions are bad, because I don’t think they are — although I don’t want to manipulate them in others. Nor am I suggesting that we don’t need to know our neighbors well enough to know what they are facing. What I’m suggesting is it is a matter of carts and horses. Discipleship is what we’ve been called to, trusting God can take care of growth when we live and share Jesus and his way of life. Growth is a product of discipleship. Developing a robust, growing Christ-likeness in the life of our congregation, our neighborhoods, and our homes is our way forward.

When I’m on my game, that central idea sits near the heart of how I think ministry needs to be approached.

Discipleship & Church Building

Slavery to the Fear of Death

This is another in a series of older posts I am porting over from an older blog space. This one is from the Fall of 2015. These thoughts continue to be foundational to the way I’ve come to look at things. Enjoy!

Over the summer, I read Richard Beck’s The Slavery of Death and John Romanides’ The Ancestral Sin. These two works have really helped nuance and deepen my understanding of how the broken world goes round — and how the work of Jesus counters that brokenness. Today, I thought I would share some of what I’ve learned.

Growing up in an evangelical context, I have always viewed humanity’s primary dilemma as sin. Working from passages like Romans 6:23 — “ … the wages of sin is death …” — I’ve carried a pretty straightforward view of how things worked. We sin and that leads to death, and so Jesus comes to somehow deal with our sin problem.

In recent years, and especially since I’ve started thinking more deeply about themes of atonement and resurrection, a second set of texts have come to my attention that complicates the simpler narrative about sin and death and Jesus on the cross. For instance, here’s a key passage in Hebrews 2:14–15:

Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, he also shared the same things in the same way. He did this to destroy the one who holds the power over death — the devil — by dying. He set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death.

Here, the Hebrews writer characterizes what Jesus did on the cross as the defeat of the devil who holds power over death. In accomplishing this victory, Jesus redeems us from our slavery to the fear of death.

While not denying sin or it’s ill effects, the writer seems to believe atonement is not so much about our sin problem as it is about our death problem. Then, there is an interesting suite of passages in 1 Corinthians 15:

Death is the last enemy to be brought to an end … (vs. 26)

Death has been swallowed up by a victory. Where is your victory, Death? Where is your sting, Death? Death’s sting is sin … (vs. 54–56)

1 Corinthians 15 is Paul’s treatment of resurrection. This is the victory he refers to in the concluding remarks of vs. 54ff. Of particular interest is that Paul describes the resurrection of Jesus in terms of the defeat of death rather than the defeat of sin. In fact, in quite the reversal from my typical way of thinking about the subject, he calls sin “death’s sting.” Here, sin is what results from death.

Again, these texts suggest a way of looking at the human predicament that is different from the way I’ve grown up looking at it. They suggest the primary dilemma is not sin, but death. Further, while it is clear sin opened the door to death, we are also left with this intriguing notion that our slavery to the fear of death also leads to sin.

This last point, in particular, has captivated me. Working from the perspective of thinkers like the Preacher of Ecclesiastes and Ernest Becker, it seems that our anxieties about death motivate an awful lot of the sinful things we do.

The Preacher points out that our search for meaning in life “under the sun” will always be futile because of death. Whatever we make of the other texts, this is clearly the issue for him. No matter what you accomplish, no matter who you become, it is all vanity because you die. That’s a heavy thought.

Becker comes in and argues (convincingly) that an awful lot of what we do in life amounts to trying to forget, deny, or push past the Preacher’s conclusion. We push back against our anxieties in thousands of subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Sometimes we even push back violently and at the expense of others.

So, sin not only leads to death, but our fear of death also leads to more sin. Round and round that goes, on and on. For me, the old way of looking at the causality of sin and death has changed. It used to be a straight line — sin leads to death. Now it has been replaced by a downward spiral that leads us deeper and deeper into slavery, with death being the primary dilemma we face. Here’s how I sketched it out earlier this week:

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Slavery to the Fear of Death

Oikos 101 – Baptizing

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This is the latest in a series of posts exploring a project some of us have been doing at 8&H called oikos. If you’ve missed something, here is the previous post in the series, and here is the first one.

Matthew 28:18-20 sits at the heart of how oikos is organized at 8&H, and for the last few posts, we’ve been unpacking it. You will remember there is only one explicit command in verse 19-20, what we commonly call the Great Commission. The command is to make disciples of every nation. There is an implicit command in this text too, that we be disciples, so we might summarize Jesus’ commission to us this way: we are to be and make disciples. And ultimately, this is what oikos is about. Oikos is about developing a context within which discipleship to Jesus happens in real and meaningful ways.

This is further defined by the three statements Jesus adds to his command in Matthew 28:19-20. This idea of discipleship – both being and making – is fleshed out by the notions of goingbaptizing, and teaching. We’ve already looked at going. We will look at baptizing here, and we will look at teaching in a future post.

Baptism is a rich and complex event, and I suspect Jesus meant for all that depth to be conveyed here. At it’s heart, however, it’s about commitment. Baptism is the moment you give yourself to God and he gives himself to you. So, when we’re talking about the Great Commission, baptism is an important part of discipleship, but we also might summarize it this way:

Discipleship is a life in which we are increasingly committed to Jesus and in which we draw others into deeper commitment to Jesus as well. 

Baptism is one of those big moments, but it is not the only moment. As such, the life of discipleship is a life in which I increasingly lean into Jesus, even though I’ve been a Christian more than half my life. And, it’s a life in which I invite others to join me in that journey as well – whether they’ve never heard of Jesus, or whether they’ve been a Christian for 50 years.

In my experience, this is one of the beautiful things about oikos. In the oikos I am a part of, we have a wide range of people. Some are retired. Others are children. Many of us are somewhere in between. Some of us have been Christians a long time. Others haven’t made that formal commitment yet.

And yet, regardless of where we are on that spectrum, we’ve committed to move closer together – the young learn from the old, the old learn from the young, the veteran married couples share their struggles and the hard-earned wisdom they’ve gained, and we’re inspired by the passion of the newly-weds. This list can go on and on. We’re each moving closer to Jesus – deepening that commitment baptism stands for – and we’re each in it together (and always willing to add a few more to the mix).

This is what oikos is. It is a community where we can learn to honor the sort of commitment baptism represents with integrity.

Oikos 101 – Baptizing

Oikos 101 – All In

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This is the latest in a series about what oikos in the context of my 8&H church family. You can find the previous post here. You can find the first post here.

With oikos, we want to develop a context for people to discover their identity in Christ and work out what life with him looks like. This necessarily sets us down the path of discipleship. As I argued in the last post, Matthew 28:18-20 serves as summary of that life, and as such, this text makes up the theological backbone of what we mean by oikos.

Now, I need to begin unpacking that text.

The first thing Jesus says is, “I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth” (vs. 28). We could spill a lot of words on this short statement, and we could do it without wasting a word, but the upshot of all those words is this: Because of Jesus’ victory on the cross and in his resurrection, he now rules the world.

I’ve found we often don’t mind Jesus being in charge of heavenly things. We tend to label the things we consider heavenly as “spiritual” things, not really knowing what the word means, and carry on with our lives only slightly changed. We struggle a little more with the idea that Jesus has all authority over earthly things. For instance, it’s an election year, and you will commonly hear the sentiment that the church ought to stay out of politics. While I would never advocate one candidate over another, the notion that we should tell those who’ve given their lives to speak God’s word that this word has no place in our political decisions gives me pause. That is, when it comes to how we actually treat our neighbors, we struggle with the notion that Jesus might have something authoritative to say about that. “He’s not concerned about that,” we say. “He’s only interested in ‘spiritual’ things.”

Except that’s not exactly what the text says. It says he has all authority in heaven and on earth. I can’t remember who said it, but I like the sentiment: Jesus is King over all creation, not just Secretary of Afterlife Affairs.

What this means for oikos is a life of discipleship that is just that. A life of discipleship. Jesus wants all the things we consider “spiritual” – and he also wants all the things we consider “worldly.” There is no part of our being, no part of our experience, no part of this creation, that Jesus does not long to bring under his gracious, gentle, and good control.

As such, discipleship can be described as the process of giving all we are over to Jesus’ care and control. Not just Sunday, but every part of our lives, and oikos is a place where we can explore (and practice!) what that looks like in our everyday lives.

Oikos 101 – All In