One Body… Levels of Preservation

As we’ve been working our way through Ephesians this summer at Bloom, I found this little snippet out of chapter 4 pretty compelling:

1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

It’s intriguing to me, and I think highly significant, that Paul doesn’t say “make every effort to achieve…” or “make every effort to create…” or “make every effort to establish…” or something of that nature.  Rather, he says, “make every effort to keep/retain/preserve the unity of the Spirit in/through the bond of peace.”

Fascinating stuff.  Apparently Paul thought that the “unity” of the Church – what the apostle John would call “koinonia” in another context – was ontologically prior to any single member of the Church’s feelings about it.  That is to say – it is REAL.  Even if we don’t think it is.  Or feel it is.  Or believe it is.  It just is.

Which is perhaps the reason that the unity of the Church is an article of both the ancient Apostles’ and Nicene creeds – because if we didn’t have to confess it every week, odds are we wouldn’t believe it.  And if we didn’t believe it, odds are we wouldn’t order our lives according to it.  Much like marriage.  Christians believe that the act of marriage is creative – that something (the union) has come into being that is greater than anyone’s feelings about it.  “What God has joined together…” after all.  And it is the confidence that the union is deeper than our feelings about it that helps order our desires and passions in the right direction.  As the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to a couple about to be married: “From now on, it is your marriage that will sustain your love, and not your love the marriage…”

Profound stuff.

Frankly, however, in our culture of radical individualism, autonomy, and consumerism, and of course in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which shattered Christendom into a billion little pieces, the primal confession that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” has fallen on hard times.  Now, it is the empowered “user” who through the dynamism of her personal choice gets to construct her social and religious world, “unity” be damned…  And, as it turns out, Queen Choice is an awful tyrant.  I see three places where this is perverting our individual lives and corporate witness:

1) On the interpersonal level, we are more flippant about our relationships within the body of Christ than perhaps we’ve ever been.  Aided and abetted by our transience and by the plenitude of communal options before us, we simply don’t “make every effort” to fight for deep, meaningful, lasting interpersonal relationships within the body of Christ.  We enjoy the bliss of community for a season, but the moment things get difficult or conflicts arise, we bail out.  Everyone loses here.

2) On the corporate/communal level, we are more flippant about our relationship to total communities of faith than we’ve ever been.  Pastors, you are much to blame for this.  The degree to which we’ve acted as an accomplice to this conspiracy of the autonomous choosing individual and user-empowered church experiences in the name of attracting people to our communities is appalling, and is actually destroying our communities.  Like madmen, we’ve cut off the branch we’re sitting on in the name of getting people through the doors, forgetting that churches aren’t built on consumers – they’re built on the backs of collectives of people who have covenanted together to live out the deep meaning of “ekklesia”.

3) On the “universal” level, we’re more eager to excommunicate each other than we’ve ever been.  The Rob Bell fiasco of this spring was a perfect case in point.  Before the book was even released to the public, Rob was being denounced and condemned as a heretic.  The witch hunt was on.  But then – and here’s the crazy thing – before too long, the hunters became the hunted.  Pretty soon the “pro-Rob” faction was denouncing and condemning the “anti-Rob” faction.  What we forgot was that in times past, when someone would teach/preach/write something controversial, the Church would labor – often for YEARS – trying to parse out exactly what so-and-so was saying, measuring it against the canons of received faith, before issuing some broad judgment.  And in the process, they’d (a) preserve unity and (b) grow much wiser.  After all, the great creeds and confessions of the church were BIRTHED out of theological controversy.  And their birthing, make no mistake, was a “labor” from beginning to end.  We’d prefer to microwave the process by tweeting our denunciations.  What a weird world we now live in.

In all of this, the Pauline injunction is dismissed or overlooked entirely – make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  That is to say, to reiterate, our connectedness as members of the body of Christ is ontologically prior to our feelings, and therefore must be fought for.  And from where I stand, by and large, we’re just not doing this.

How do we fix it?

In small but profound ways…

By fighting for relationships within the Body, even – and especially when – they get complicated.  Actually, it has been my experience that the eruption of conflict within relationships can be the doorway to deeper friendship.  But most of us never get there because we’re afraid of conflict.  Stick with relationships.

By fighting for our sense of commitment to particular communities of faith.  It’s ludicrous to me that many from my generation scorn and scoff at our parents’ churches, but don’t have even an ounce of the character that our parents had – many of whom took out second and third mortgages to help pay for the buildings we now laugh at, because they believed that in so doing they were helping to spread the gospel.  However misguided in retrospect that might have been, at least they bled for something they believed in.  Sadly, we don’t.  We mock and criticize… and then wander back off into our private little consumeristic ghettos.  Shame on us.  Time to do better.  Let the Spirit lead you to a community of faith, and then STAY THERE and CONTRIBUTE, until the Spirit leads you elsewhere (and don’t mistake being bored with a community or having the romantic feelings for a community wear off for the Holy Spirit).

By fighting for unity within the broader Body of Christ.  And when I say this, SO THAT I’M PERFECTLY CLEAR, I’m not advocating some kind of fuzzy “Let’s just all get along because in the end it doesn’t really matter anyway” idiotic Christianized “tolerance.”  I think we need to think.  I think when Rob, or anyone else, writes something or says something that’s challenging or controversial, we ought to subject their work to rigorous, thoughtful, deep, careful scrutiny WITHOUT AUTOMATICALLY ISSUING CONDEMNATION in the hopes that in so doing we’ll edify each other and clarify what we actually do believe.  After all, one of the postures that Paul commends in the passage above is “patience”, and there was nothing patient about how the Bell controversy was handled.  Foolishness I say.  We will be less than we could be as the Body of Christ for failing to heed the Pauline injunction in ALL areas of our lives.

Well, there it is… a bit of a rant : )

Grace to you.

14 thoughts on “One Body… Levels of Preservation

  1. I share your frustration. It is a profound thing that in the creeds we confess seemingly absurdities such as the Church being one or being holy. If we could only grapple with the truth of our claims of ecclesial oneness and holiness. I fear, however, that we will not be capable of achieving right thinking on these things without a resurgence of real sacramentology. Not until we wrestle with the idea of Eucharistic embodiment, with Christ himself as the locus of verification for these claims will we be equipped to understand how we are one and how we are holy. And how can that happen while remain children of the enlightenment? It seems like a much harder road.

    Although my analysis risks being completely incorrect if the same problem is found amongst the early church, unless those who I will mention simply did not take sacramentology seriously at certain times. For instance, the polemical outbursts of some Fathers make Driscoll and Bell look like buddies. Tertullian for instance would call Marcion “The rat from Pontus who gnaws away at the gospel.” Or for example he would title an entire volume of works “Against Praxeas” who was another Christian thinker in his time. I know we now regard Praxeas and Marcion as heretics but there really wasn’t much in the way of guiding them theologically. No solid cannon or cannoned Dogma.

    This is a serious question for you. I would like to have your opinion.

    If Tertullian saw Praxeas and Marcion’s work as heretical would you still critique him for his radical polemics against them even though he was right? Do his intense polemics fit your critique of the churches modern lack of unity? Or is it different because the Church was still so new and vulnerable?

    This was an very scattered comment. Sorry about that.

  2. Haha. Dude no worries on “scattered”… Couple thoughts real quick in response (in the order of your paragraphs):

    1) I’d love to hear more on what you’re saying when you say “we will not be capable of achieving right thinking on these things without a resurgence of real sacramentology. Not until we wrestle with the idea of Eucharistic embodiment, with Christ himself as the locus of verification for these claims will we be equipped to understand how we are one and how we are holy.”

    2) Minor disagreement on “No solid canon or cannoned dogma” in Tertullian’s time – my understanding is that the basic canon of orthodoxy was present in the “regula fide” from the earliest days of Christian preaching, and that already by the mid-late 1st century, the canon of Scripture (including NT) was coming together… so while full-blown Nicene and Calcedonian orthodoxy may not have evolved yet, it was certainly there. Which does help explain why the debates were so fierce. The Church was fighting for its very life… and in the process discovered itself.

    3) Tertullian’s comments about Marcion are hysterical. Not knowing more about what was considered “standard fare” in those days for interacting with a person’s views publicly, I don’t really have much comment on whether or not said comments were charitable or out of bounds. I can only speak to my own moment, and in my judgment, the Piper “Farewell Rob Bell” was bad form. Especially since it lacked (a) any explanation whatsoever and (b) the slightest conciliatory gesture. As I said – let’s be rigorous. In that respect, Tertullian AND those who raised an outcry about “Love Wins” were right on the money. But let’s “make every effort” to preserve unity when we are rigorous.

    Piper, for instance, in recent days has proven that he can reach out charitably towards those who he would seem to be far apart from (see here – http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/john-piper-interviews-rick-warren-on-doctrine)… I don’t see why he couldn’t have done the same in this case.

    Thoughts?

  3. Couple of thoughts. First off, fantastic blog as usual my friend.

    Second, its interesting that you bring in the denunciation of Rob Bell for writing controversial stuff in a quasi apologetic for not being quick to denounce. You cited the labor with which the church fathers poured over the Nicene Creed as an example. But it is precisely the Nicene Creed which give us the ability to quickly separate orthodoxy from heresy and heterodoxy. We should not need to rehearse and go back to the drawing board over those points made clear in the Creed every time a rouge like Bell comes along. No disrespect to rouges, but Bell’s book “Love Wins” denounces any concept of a “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.” One should denounce such denouncements with lightning speed and not linger with tender mercies for the “broad way” theologians, giving holy honor to our refined, 21st century, American fancy for theological inclusion-ism (I say all this in a general fashion, not to you personally 🙂

    Third I would say that Paul spoke of the Church’s unity as he did because in his day there was not a billion factions (as you noted), but rather a single, visible, apostolic Church. It was this Church that Paul and the others encouraged the believers to preserve, and it worked for a thousand years. Now in the age of “confessionalism” is there really any hope of universal unity for the church(es)? Creeds can get us there, but confessions can never. I choked on the Nicene Creed as an independent charismatic when I would hit the line about the Church.

    Anyway, I really appreciate you tackling this subject. Very few have the ability to give it justice. Cheers!

    • Eric –

      As always, great thoughts.

      Probably some of what my third point was about was/is an issue uniquely for those within the Protestant/free-church tradition. If we’re not going to have a magisterium that settles all theological disputes for us, instead pursuing a more or less egalitarian and communal process of discernment, let’s at least be honest about it. From my perspective (that is to say, from within that tradition), John Piper is in no more a position to issue a lightning-quick denunciation which carries any authority than the average pew-sitting John Christian. To put the matter further back, we (Protestants) created the situation we’re now in by breaking off from the original “Church”… it is our own “Protestantism” that makes theological novelty on the level we’re seeing it possible… so if we’re going to be honest about our situation, (a) we shouldn’t be surprised when controversy erupts from within our ranks and (b) we’d better be humble about how we discern the truth of the biblical witness together, knowing that we are where we are because we’ve all – together – thrown off any Magisterium save for the little pope in our own heads : )

      If I keep talking like this, I’m gonna wind up converting… : ) Enough for now.

      • “If I keep talking like this, I’m gonna wind up converting,” haha, no doubt.

        I’m always encouraged when a Protestant has enough meta-cognition to see the “little pope in our own heads” phenomenon. I’m amazed at how many resist this clear-as-day situation. One guy (long time church associate from my way back days) dropped me as an FB friend because I eluded to the idea that he was operating as the pope of his self-start up church after he had blasted the pope of Rome for being the unilateral decision maker of the Roman Church. I love irony 🙂 .

        Btw, off topic, I realize now that you were my only friend in Tulsa who made for a compatible running partner. None of my friends can keep up. Its sad. Miss you man.

    • Hey dude – I did read it. And loved it. You’re a great thinker.

      We should catch a run when I’m in T-town – I’m faster now : )

      Oh, and I also appreciated being lauded for my powers of “meta-cognition”… that’s a first in my life : )

  4. 1. Here I am talking about the loss of sacramentology during the Reformation. The idea of Sacramentology was watered down by luther and Calvin perhaps even in an acceptable way. However, Evangelicals (non-denoms, charismatics, Pentecostals) are more so children of Zwingli in this respect than of Calvin, Luther or Melanchton. The effects of Zwingli’s teachings on sacraments (to put it crudely..that they don’t exist) has greatly diminished the beauty of the Christian message. Just when it seems it couldn’t have gotten worse. boom. The Enlightenment happens. Inductive Empiricism empowers the already devastating loss of Sacramental reality, which becomes nearly impossible to reclaim for so many Western protestants.

    And so, because of this, we find ourselves at a loss for having an understanding of what the sacraments are. It is my belief that the communal life of the Church is derived from being rooted in the sacramental and confessional life of the Church. We have spiritual gifts (charismata) in our churches but they are not rooted in it’s sacramental and confessional life and that is dangerous.

    The use of the charismata must remain always grounded in the sacramental and confessional life of the church ( Eph. 4.4-6; 1 Cor. 12.13). Whenever Paul talks about the gifts, he also speaks of the “one body.” His understanding of the church as “body” comes from the sacramental (“one bread,” “one baptism”) reality of the church, which witnesses to the embodied Lord, and the church’s saving confession of faith in the Trinity (“one God,” “one Lord,” “one Spirit”).

    Whenever the church attempts to be charismatic without also being deeply sacramental and confessional, we lose the critical ability to discern what is from the Spirit of Christ, opening ourselves to false and evil spirits (cf. 1 Jn 4.1-3). This is one way that we have arrived at the dilemma you posed in the original post. Conversely, when the church attempts to be sacramental and confessional without being genuinely charismatic, Christ becomes an ideal, an object, and Christianity is reduced to a way of thinking or feeling, rather than a way of living. This is how Churches who maintain a balanced sacramentology arrive at the dilemma you posed in the original post.

    This is where I start. The rest is a conversation that I may not be capable of writing convincingly yet. It involves a cross examination of the work of Jurgen Moltmann and Robert Jenson (two of my favorite people in the biz) and a few others. I will say though that the whole Christian idea of Sacramentology is rooted in the blurring of the lines between the ontological and deontological. This man Christ tell his disciples that he will never leave them or forsake them and then poof he disappears on a mountain. Eucharistic Sacramentology is a study in how he wasn’t lying when he said he wouldn’t leave and what that means for our identity as the Church. I know that probably seems very unclear but I don’t have my degree yet so I have an excuse.lol. I would be happy to talk to you about it though sometime. Perhaps the next time you are in Tulsa to preach.

    2. Yes there is regula fidei but still. Yes there was a loose and open cannon but still. Irenaeus deserves a lot of the credit for establishing certain aspects of the faith as regula fidei. He seemed to know the deal better than most who followed him. However, until the first ecumenical council it remains difficult for me to stand in condemnation against theorizers of the faith. Of course there are the exceptions like Simon Magus and others, who were dogs. I believe Marcion was a heretic. It’s just hard for me to blame him. It was all so loose. I have hear it is estimated that over 80% of Christians were Arian by the time Nicaea came along. So they were all heretics too but I can’t blame them. I also don’t blame Tertullian for saying things like “Praxeas did a two-fold service for the devil in Rome; he crucified the father and set the Paraclete to flight.” I get it.

    3. As for this point I agree totally. Piper’s comment didn’t shock me but I didn’t expect that either. That video was interesting and brought back some respect for the guy in my eyes. I agree also on your point about being rigorous and still trying to keep the unity. It’s just so hard sometimes.

    • Hey man – thanks for writing back. Agreed w/ so much of what you said.

      W/ regards to point #1 – how familiar are you w/ Bonhoeffer? If you’ve never read “Christ the Center”, you should. You’d resonate with a lot of what he said there.

      Cheers!

  5. I’ve read all of his works in the Testament to Freedom collection, life together, The Cost of Discipleship, and his Ethics. But I have not read Christ the Center. I will take that recommendation.

  6. Andrew,

    Just wanted to say hello and thank you for your thoughts. As I sit in Haiti staying back with members of our team who have come down with a bug, I am encouraged to read your thoughts, sad to be absent from Bloom and increasingly excited about coming back.

    The team we’re working with right now continues to amaze me in their devotion to unity. With a team of 19, you are bound to encounter difficulty and conflict as you live around one another 24/7 for 55 days. But each time something arises, I am shocked and encouraged at the continued posture of surrender that’s demonstrated. When everyone is devoted first and foremost to Christ, it establishes a deeper trust in community and moves towards eliminating second guessing alternative motivators. The experience has encouraged me to believe that the unity Jesus prayed for in John 17 among “those that will believe” is a reality that we can know and believe. And also that there is power in the body of Christ living together in unity to those who see it.

    Peace to you
    Rachel

    • Rachel Caslen! I’ve been praying for you sister… hope all is well!

      I loved this sentence – “When everyone is devoted first and foremost to Christ, it establishes a deeper trust in community and moves towards eliminating second guessing alternative motivators.” Reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s saying that “From now on the believer knows his brother or sister only through Christ” or something to that effect (From Life Together). That’s what I was stressing with the “ontologically prior” thing. HE is our Unity. HE is our peace. We pursue it because it’s ALREADY real in him, and to violate or ignore it would be to ignore him. Applied somewhat differently, the verse “What God has joined together, let man not put asunder” comes to mind.

      Anyway, stay in touch! I’d love to hear more about how things are going…

      grace and peace

      Andrew

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