Sunday, December 12, 2010

Brian Tamaki and Others and The Abuse of the Notion of Being In Christ

Paul uses the language of 'in Christ' some 83 times and 'in the Lord' 47x (Dunn, Theology, 296-97). It is part of his participationist Christology. If we accept what appears on the Cult Watch website about all believers being Christs, there is a lack of understanding of the idea of what Paul means by 'in Christ.' BT is not alone in this, in my view, many theologians are little better flirting with the way in which Paul uses the idea. BT appears to think that as we are 'in Christ' we are 'Christs' ourselves. The implication of this could be that we are of the same status and empowered to the same level as Christ himself. He reminds me a little of contemporary theologians who argue that all humans are 'in Christ' by virtue of Christ being the 'elect one' and all humans are now participants of him, they just have to realise it. Another element of 'in Christ' thinking that is held by many today is believing that, as we are 'in Christ' through salvation, we are in some sense divine, a part of the Triune God, in an actual sense that leads to divinisation or theosis in an extreme sense.
It occurred to me as I pondered all this that Paul is misunderstood in his 'in Christ' thinking by all of the above; or better, each is imbalanced and twists or distorts what Paul really meant.

We can tell from Paul's broader teaching that he never meant 'in Christ' thinking to blur the line between the divine and created. Take for example Rom 1:18-25 where the essential problem of humanity is that they do not give thanks to or worship the creator as they should; rather, they worship the created. Idolatry for Paul, the problem the first two commandments focus on, not to mention the Greatest Commandment to love God with everything we have, is the essential problem of fallen humanity. As such, to elevate ourselves in any sense into the divine would be a total misunderstanding of Paul and a corruption; indeed, it would be falling prey to the essential sin of humanity, albeit in a different way. In 1 Cor 8:6 Paul makes clear there is one God and one Lord, Jesus Christ. We in no sense 'become God' when we are included in Christ at the moment of faith.

The idea that we are 'in Christ' before we are converted in some sense may be a nice idea theologically; however, it is flawed. Paul clearly sees humanity in two groups, those who are in Christ and those who are captive to the effects of the Fall of humanity in Genesis 3 they are 'in Adam' (e.g. Rom 5:12-21). You cannot simultaneously be in Adam and in Christ. What gets a person into Adam? Birth into a corrupted world where sin holds sway and sin, 'because all have sinned' (Rom 5:12). Getting out of 'Adam' and into 'Christ' is found through faith pre-Christ (e.g. Abraham in Rom 4) and post-Christ (e.g. Rom 3:21-31). We are 'justified by faith.' It may be on about 6 occasions that Paul refers to Christ's faith saving us (e.g. 'faithfulness of Christ; Rom 3:28 etc), but in the main our faith response to this Christ and/or God is what moves us into the status of 'in Christ.' It is thus a soteriological idea, we are saved 'in Christ' the realm of salvation.

Once we are 'in Christ' we in no way become Christ in a literal or ontological sense. Paul and the NT at no point speak of believers as 'Christs.' They are 'Christ's' in the sense of being 'of Christ' or owned by Christ, but they are not all Christs. There is one unique Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, who came and lived, served, died and rose again to reveal God and path the way to salvation for all who would believe. To say we are 'Christs' is to fulfil the prophecy of many false Christs! We do not want that. He is the one unique Israelite king, appointed to rule the world, and to whom all will submit or be crushed under his feet. I choose to submit and not to usurp him, the sin of the garden!

So what does it mean to be 'in Christ'? Well it does not mean that we are Christs or God's ourselves. We never become divine, the ontological gap between the divine and the created remains. First, as noted above, it is a soteriological idea, we are no longer in Adam facing the consequences of sin including death and eternal destruction. We are one of the saved, being saved and will be saved people. Secondly, it means that spiritually we are included in Christ by the work of the Spirit of Christ (Rom 8:11) who is in us. Thus we are united with Christ spiritually. This must not be misunderstood in concrete terms as if we are all little bits of Christ. Because BT sees Christ's resurrection as non-corporeal and so spiritual, he can argue this. If we hold to orthodoxy that Jesus is still incarnate, a man, a separate physical bodily individual, albeit gloriously immortal and risen, then he remains other to us. We are united with him in the Spirit. It is thus a spiritual idea. Thirdly, it means we are part of a people, those who by faith are also 'in Christ', whether from ancient Israel, from the Christian era, and in my view, from all over the world where faith in God is found. It is thus an ecclesiological concept in which there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; we are one people in Christ. We retain our individuality, our distinctives, our uniqueness, but are part of a people united by common faith and the Spirit. This people is a new humanity, the restoration of the original intention of God. Through the marking of the Spirit, we are citizens of heaven on earth, living in a fallen world and a rotting body, but spiritually united with God and each other through the work of the Spirit. It is an eschatological idea, we are out of the fallen people of God and in a new people. The visible manifestation of this people is the Church of God on planet earth. It is thus a spiritual union. Thirdly, we are participants in the work of this Christ, led and empowered by the Spirit with ethical attributes like love, and gifts like evangelist or prophecy or service etc (Rom 12:3-8; 1 Cor 12-14; Eph 4:11-12). We participate in the sufferings of Christ as we minister on his behalf. In a spiritual and theological sense he is in us and we in him and so his work is extended, he suffers in us and with us and through us, and his work on earth is carried out through his 'body', the 'body of Christ', on earth. Thus, it is a missiological notion. It is terribly dangerous to push this further and say we are in an ontological and essential sense Christ. Any sense in which we are 'in Christ' is derivative and gifted to us on the basis of faith and submission to his lordship. So there is an irony here; we threaten our status if we cross the line. This seems to do so.

Confusion seems to come when people start to isolate themselves from others and in terms of their own importance and start to believe that there is no qualitative difference between Jesus the Christ and themselves as 'Christs.' They start to think that they are actually gifted more than the Scriptures tell us. The metaphor is pushed so that they are of the same status and level as the 'head of the church' and 'firstborn from the dead' Jesus Christ our Lord. They posit, ah, I am essentially on a par with Jesus the Christ. They find verses like John 14:12 which appear to say all believers will do the same things as Jesus and posit, if I just have enough faith I can be Christ to the world. Some do this at a corporate level believing the church itself is Christ on earth. The immediate problem with these ideas is that we are not perfected and our sanctification completed. Further, any 'in Christness' is due to being a part of Christ in submission to him and dependent on him and the Spirit. To go further actually threatens to sever this as we move from being creatures dependent upon God to the essential problem of Satan, Adam and Eve, Babel, and all sinners since; we believe ourselves to be above what we are created to be. If we and the church are literally Christs to the world, then we are rubbish and Christ has become corrupted for we are individually and corporately remain corrupted, subject to sin and flawed.

The same problems apply to eternity in my view. When we are completed at the return of Christ we do not become gods. There is one God. Sure we become divine, incorruptible, immortal and we have the same glorious body as Jesus Christ our Lord. Yet we remain creaturely, dependent, submissive, beneath. The picture of worship in Revelation is not of perfected humans standing around worshiping self or each other, but of the saved standing before the throne on which God and the lamb are found, worshiping God! Elders are falling before this God, Father and Son. Humans together cry praises to the one who is worthy! We may have some of the attributes of the divine, but we are no divine in the fullest sense of the word. And these are gifts on the basis of the one Christ's divinity, not our own.

The body of Christ is not made up of a whole lot of Christs, but is a people of God who all are part of the one Christ spiritually, ecclesiologically, eschatologically, missiologically and who are to live as Christ lived, out of service, love, humility, mercy, sacrifice, suffering and even death. They each have gifts imparted by God sovereignly and spiritually. They are to serve together in unity under Christ's lordship and the Spirit's guidance, in glorious koinonia and unity, to see the world know that there is a God and a Lord. They will rise and receive their eternal reward, eternal life and blessing. Yet they will remain humanly, in submission. Indeed, I would imagine that if any of us seek to rise above our station and claim to be divine, we will be in danger of being thrown out. Hopefully that will not be possible when we get there, but who knows?
So, I encourage you to think very carefully about all this. There are dangers everywhere. Our 'in Christness' is a gift, a status, an honour, a motivation to mission, to hope, to service; but it is not a ground for the ultimate hubris, where we claim to be gods. We are not. To God be the glory. Amen.


Anonymous said...

Thanks, worth reading several times.

Howard Carter said...

once again MArk very precise and a good working through the scipture.

When I listened to Bt's sermon I did wondr what he was actually trying to say. I think you've addressed that well and countered it.

Paul's approach to being 'In christ' is an invitation to relationship by grace rather than an activation of some spark of divine nature within us. As you point out BT does not point to us sharing in christs suffering and being called to share his mind in being willing to be a servant (as in Phillipians 2). It does gloss over Paul's almost bipolar self awareness that he is the chief amongst sinners and he is simply a bond servant of Christ. Acknowledging the battle within him between his two natures.

Anonymous said...

re: your opinions about BT and his teaching.... you are a teacher yes.

Just a question about perspective on your standing as a 'servant' teacher of things of God... Why does Teacher come under Apostle? I Corinthians 12:28

Dr Mark K said...

Great question anon.

Some people think it demonstrates the status priority of the apostle i.e. they are more important or have authority over others.

However, the whole point of Paul's argument in the previous verses is to shoot this sort of thinking down, it is the seeming least impressive in the church who are most important (read 1 Cor 12:19-26). Paul's point is that all are equally important, all gifts are of egual value and importance, and so there should be no looking down on one another as if one is superior to the other.

Another perspective is that it is about authority. One of the problems in the Corinthian church is a rejection of Paul and so, while he does not see himself as more important or of higher rank, he is subtly challenging them with this order. The same order is found in Eph 4:11. That is, he has some priority as their 'father' (see 1 Cor 4:16). Another possibility is that it is about the order of ministry i.e. the apostle plants the church, the other people in the church follow on and build on the apostle's foundational work e.g. teachers etc. If so, it is not about power, authority, status or dominance, it is merely about the order.

I think Paul believed an apostle had a certain authority over the church he planted, but even he seeks to draw his converts to obey through love. He hates the thought of exerting power (see e.g. 1 Cor 4:20).

Why do you ask?