As Christians, we sometimes feel discouraged and hopeless about the culture around us. Dozens of books have been written about the decline of the church. We may feel like we are just a ragtag group trying to keep our balance in the midst of stiff cultural winds blowing against us. Yet God declares that we are his church, the body of Christ, the heralds of the new creation. All creation stands with us as we await the revelation of Jesus Christ and the vindication of our faith before the world. We are ambassadors of this great redemption for the world that, despite its self-confidence, is dying and passing away. But we need guidance amid this cultural upheaval. We need words of encouragement and hope as we face the daunting task of re-presenting the gospel to this generation and raising up a new generation of Christians who have been profoundly reoriented to think Christianly about the challenges of our time. One of the central facets of this challenge is gaining our bearings as we articulate a theology of the body.
Below are three guidelines meant to orient us to our particular place in Christian history and the emphases that are important if we are to be successful Christian pastors, leaders, teachers, and communicators today.
- REMEMBER THE IMAGO DEI
A pastoral implication is a reminder that all people are created in the image of God. This has enormous ramifications for how we respond to people across society, especially those who identify as part of the LGBT+ community. We certainly decry the wisdom of making sexual fulfillment the highest sign of fulfillment in our society, as well as the inward gaze that defies the creational intentions inherent in our being born male or female and in the image of God. However, none of this erases the deeper reality that we are taught in Scripture: all people are created in God’s image and are bearers, however fragmented, of that holy image. Therefore, any kind of attack on LGBT+ people is reprehensible and must be strongly opposed at every turn. Basic civil rights to live and dwell in safety and security, even for those with whom we have sharp disagreement, is a Christian value because ultimately it is rooted in the image of God.
The church should be quick to condemn violent actions against the LGBT+ community. For instance, on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a twenty-nine-year-old security guard, killed forty-nine people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. While this particular shooting received wide coverage because it was so horrific, there are regular accounts in the news of gay, lesbian, or transgender people being assaulted. When these events occur, the church should be among the first to condemn them, and we should reflect on this theologically and compassionately in our churches. Silence is unfortunately consent in these matters. In a Christendom context, laws protected Judeo-Christian beliefs and practices and openly discriminated against those who embodied dissent. This is not a viable strategy in today’s pluralistic context. We must increasingly recognize that when anyone’s civil rights are violated, it is an assault upon us all. We need to become more comfortable living and operating in a truly pluralistic cultural context where we must “persuade” people with a compelling Christian vision. We are all created in the image of God, and we must treat all people with the proper dignity and honor.
- COME, SINNERS, TO THE GOSPEL FEAST
Next, the church must warmly welcome all. The nature of the gospel calls us to extend the good news to all people. All sinners are invited to the gospel feast, as is so beautifully articulated by Charles Wesley in the hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.” Ministries that provide support for those suffering with AIDS are not different theologically from the church’s historic role in providing ministries for those who suffer from alcoholism. Both are expressions of genuine love for people in need.
Christians in general and evangelicals in particular have become regarded as unwelcoming and even hostile toward those who struggle with their sexuality or gender. This perception underscores that the church has not provided the warm reception that we have historically offered to a wide range of people who are experiencing various expressions of brokenness. Churches have long offered special ministries for divorced people while upholding the highest standards for Christian marriage. We have long offered special ministries for those suffering from drug addictions while upholding the highest standards for the purity of the body. Why should we not engage in similar ministries, loving people where they are and extending to them the unconditional love of Christ?
As with all human brokenness, some people do not recognize that their behavior is destructive for them and for society. However, our message should be a message of loving everyone who comes through our doors. As we develop caring and genuine relationships, opportunities will be given for us to better understand others’ struggles and to share the Christian vision for the body with them. We should have a highly personal and relational ministry focus rather than trying to engage in power struggles with a community we neither know nor understand. At the same time, the church must not relinquish the courage to tell the unmarried not to commit fornication, the married not to commit adultery, and everyone, including those with same-sex attractions, not to engage in sexual immorality. When these biblical ethical boundaries are communicated, some people may, of course, feel rejected unless their lifestyle is affirmed. But this pastoral care is exercised out of love and compassion for those under our care.
This calls for a careful balancing act that embodies God’s grace and universal call, on the one hand, and authentic Christian witness reflecting the holiness of God to which we are all summoned, on the other hand. This calls for wise and courageous pastoral leadership. The tone of any church should be marked not only by grace and compassion but also by faithful, steadfast, historic Christian doctrine and practice.
- THE REBIRTH OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY AND THE “ECCLESIAL SELF”
Market driven language pervades contemporary evangelicalism at every turn. This democratizing spirit tacitly assumes that the most important reference for establishing the shape and practice of the church, ministry, and worship is popular opinion. The premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s needs are king, and the customer is always right. Yet, as David Wells has argued in God in the Wasteland, these are the very points that the gospel refuses to concede.
Evangelicals are, of course, masters at dodging any criticism that we ourselves could ever be co-opted by culture. We disguise our lack of theological reflection by our constant commitment to “relevance” or saying that we are reaching people “where they are.” Of course, who would deny that the church needs to have a profound understanding of “where people are”? That is not the problem. We are quite adept at measuring where people are culturally, but we are careless in any sustained theological reflection about where they should be culturally. So, for example, if the culture has become apathetic about ritual, tradition, symbolism, the value of history, or the necessity of intergenerational relationships, then we have quickly abandoned our deep wells of church tradition in the name of being culturally relevant.
What if these trends are actually part of the cultural malaise for which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative? What if the bodily fellowship and connectedness of the church is actually integral to the apostolic gospel, and deep connection is more important than trying to use “predictive sociological expertise,” as Tom Oden called it, on the incoming cultural wave? Many Christians have accepted, almost without question, certain definitions of success and what successful churches looks like.
Because we, in our bodies, represent the presence of God in community one to another, the growing depersonalization in the church has led to a growing sense of God’s absence from the church. Nietzsche’s madman, who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God,” does in fact identify the movement away from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in many churches today. A deep church is characterized by rich relationships and commitments, where worship is not a consumer product but the great ontological orientation of our lives. A mature church is not marked by cultural sameness but by the corporate bodily manifestation of the new creation.
We are the people of the risen Lord. We should be profoundly distinct from the culture in our “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.” Through the gospel, the consumeristic and therapeutic self of modernity is transformed into the Trinitarian and ecclesial self of the new creation. As mentioned earlier in the book, we are experiencing the growing influence of a new “self ” that John Jefferson Davis called the digital, virtual self.
Undoubtedly, the emergence of social media has had a profound impact on understanding the nature of human embodiment (i.e., you begin to believe that you are who you are digitally and online, not who you are elsewhere), an impact which has not been widely understood or fully explored. The implications of what it means to be a full member of the church as an “ecclesial self ” needs to be explored and nurtured. The church must model what it means to be an embodied person in the world.
This deep embodiment of the church will not come through “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation. This new vision sees the local church, not the parachurch, as the central hub of Christian formation. This new vision eschews niche-marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church. It abandons simplistic formulas and presentations of the gospel, opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the gospel.
The church of this new generation will need to be smaller, or at least more directly connected to the communities they serve. They will prioritize the depth of fellowship that is essential for building relationships. I’ve noted previously how one of the driving factors for same-sex marriage has been the collapse of same-sex friendships in our culture. This is an area where the church must provide wonderful resources and connective opportunities. When Acts 2:42 describes the early church’s devotion “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” they were not referring to “services rendered” but to the lifeblood of the church that was formed around fellowship, eating together, and sharing life with one another as a microcosm of new creation. This cannot be accomplished during any weekly one-hour service, however well planned it may be, because it cannot effectively compete with the hundreds of hours of malformation which is generated by the wider culture.
This deep ecclesiastical challenge strikes at our very identity as the people of God on mission together in the world. A proper rebirth of Christian fellowship will need to reflect a deep connection to our theology of the body. It is about being bodily related to one another as the body of Christ, the icons of Christ’s presence to one another and to the world. Without this renewed commitment to fostering Christian community, we are left only with the message of justification, unable to mature and sanctify our members (since justification could happen, conceivably, on a deserted island, but sanctification can only happen in community). For it is precisely in community that we learn the rhythms of sacrifice and bearing one another’s burdens and that we present a stunning invitation to abundant communal life to the broken culture around us.
About the Author
Timothy C. Tennent (PhD, University of Edinburgh, Scotland) is President, Professor of World Christianity at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of Building Christianity on Indian Foundations and Christianity at the Religious Roundtable. Dr. Tennent and wife, Julie, reside in Wilmore, Kentucky, with their two children, Jonathan and Bethany.