Thursday, August 28, 2008

Love the church: it's better together (with help from Tim Chester and Jonathan Leeman)

A common gospel summary, composed by Tim Chester:
“God made you to know him, but you have rejected God. Your sin cuts you off from God and brings you under his judgement. But God sent his Son to die in your place and reconcile you to God. Now you can know God and look forward to being with him after death”
1. This is ok except that it's utterly individualistic. We might assume because of our culture.

2. Jonathan Leeman argues that the issue is not individualism but our anti-authoritarianism. That's to say we think individually "me and God" because we don't want to be subject to the effects of other Christians upon our lives.

Some propose community as the solution, but all the people who believe the individualistic gospel above are probably church members. They go to church. They serve in church. But, they're most likely not to make decision with reference to church, and they'll probably like to sing with their eyes shut - just them and God. And when there are really only two people in the relationship it's easy to slip into assuming both parties are equal... and before long it's advantage me. Anti-authority, yet in the church.

Reacting against that kind of trend of individual, Jesus-is-my-boyfriend Christianity is the modern trend not to read Song of Songs as being about Christ. Why? Because we have songs that make it about Christ and me - not Christ and the church - and that just gets icky.

So we opt to say it's about marriage (which anything about Christ and the church will also be about) - yet Biblically Genesis 2 and Ephesians 5, two control passages on Christ/Church/Marriage lead with Christ/Church and have implications for marriage, rather than the other way around. And, as we see from Matthew Henry there is good reason in the language of the song to associate the man with the Christ, and the bride with God's people (and so by implication 'in Christ' the church).

If we can venture that the old guys from church fathers to puritans etc got it right on Song of Songs then we get to hear the Christ sing of how beautiful his church is. As a body, not as individual members. And his word can stir our hearts to share his love for his bride, and to embrace being a part of that body. Which in turn sets us free to enjoy true charismatic church life (1 Cor 12-14) though that's another post.

In view of this, Tim Chester offers this alternative (in Total Church, IVP):
“God made humanity to know him and to rule over his good creation. But humanity rejected God and ever since we have lived in rebellion against him and in conflict with each other. God chose Abraham and his family to be the beginning of a new humanity. He rescued this people from slavery and made a covenant through which they could relate to him and display his glory to the world. When the persistently rejected God, he promised a remnant who would continue the promise of a people who know God. He promised a new covenant with forgiveness for sin and with his law written on their hearts. Ultimately Jesus was that new humanity. And he rose as the first among many who would enjoy new life in a new creation. God is now gathering his people through the mission of the church and will present them, drawn from all nations, as the perfected bride of his Son”
Pointing us to the centrality not of 'me' in God's plans but of the church in Christ to the glory of God.


  1. It's a shame it's not quoted in the New Testament really, that'd set the debate straight.

    Christ/Israel and Christ/Church would certainly fit best with how the apostles used scripture, as well as for your reasons.

  2. I totally agree Song of Songs is Christ and the Church and that the corporate is essential. However, a note of caution about the history of interpretation. It's very common for older saints to say the Lover is Christ (good). But it's also quite common for them to say that the Beloved is 'my soul.' i.e. In trying to find what corresponds to the female character many plump for the feminine noun psuche (soul) rather than the feminine collective noun ecclesia (church). Which is just to say that Song of Songs is equally (but fallaciously) used to uphold an internal, individualised spirituality too.

  3. Okay, I know that individualism is the new heresy, and that the prevailing orthodoxy demands that everything be collective... but...

    At the end of the day, I am an individual. Sure, I'm part of the church, and more broadly I'm part of the human race etc. But I am me. And I need to know that Jesus loves *me*. It's no good to me that he loves 'the church' unless the church includes me, and it won't include me unless he loves me. So, for every 'Christ loved the church and gave himself for her' you also need a '[Jesus] loved *me* and gave himself for *me*'.

    Bit of a rant, but it seems important to me. We don't want to compensate for an overly-individualistic stance by denying that Jesus deals with us as individuals.

    Oh, and I think the Song is about marriage. Ah well.

  4. Ah well Daniel. No-one's perfect. ;-)

    What about this for a co-ordination of the personal and corporate:

    Psalm 106:4-5:

    "Remember me, O LORD, when you show favor to your people; help me when you save them, that I may look upon the prosperity of your chosen ones, that I may rejoice in the gladness of your nation, that I may glory with your inheritance."

  5. I don't think Tim Chester's doctrine of Creation is very strong in that statement. He seems to leave it behind and only mentions it in a jargony way.

  6. Following on from Glen and Daniel's good comments....

    Perhaps I've been reading too much Luther recently but I can't help hearing him shouting 'what about me?!' Although this has been reinforced by recent discussions with friends who doubt their own salvation similar to the way Luther did.

    The trouble I have with some presentations, like Tim Chester's, is that although they are helpful correctives to excessive individualism they distance the promises from us. Part of how they do that is by talking about 'them' and 'their' and 'the church' etc, rather than 'us', never mind 'you' and 'me'. Our personal guilt is no longer so clearly our responsibility (esp in Tom Wright's presentations) and the Gospel is also less clearly a promise belonging to us.

    One intoxicating thing about reading older writers (like Luther) on the bible is that they are always assuming that it is speaking to us. We have lost this partly because of critical scholarship emphasising the situational nature of the biblical books, but it is also down to the reaction against individualism.

    We should talk about the church more, but lets make sure that that we do not make it something seperate from us as individuals.

  7. Daniel B,

    I reckon the biblical concept of the covenant is the answer to the indivudal vs collective thing. It's neither communism nor rampant individualism. It holds together the corporate and the individual, the many and the one, refusing to acknowledge that the two are in opposition. We shouldn't think of individuals in isolation from the groups they are a part of (families, nations, marriages, churches, kingdoms), but neither should we think of groups without regard to the fact that they are made up of individuals with individual responsibilities/ responses/ gifts/ whatever.

    It's always both and, and never either or. The problem is, western evangelical christians have a bit of a habit of functioning as if the individual is the major thing without regard to the corporate.

    By analogy, it's a bit like in trinitarian theology where we mustn't deny either the reality of personhood or the reality of the oneness, but rather affirm both, and affirm their intrinsic inter-relatedness (there can be no person 'Son' without the Father, after all).

  8. Daniel B.,

    So, with regard to your second to last line; yes Jesus deals with us as individuals, BUT, what it means to be an individual inherently involves corporate realities. Who I am as and individual, what i do, what I think (i.e. all the things for which God will judge the individual Pete Jackson), are inescapably bound together with my relationships and covenants. I do not exist in isolation, and God does not regard me as such. Even in redemption, I the individual am saved, but it is by virtue of my union with Christ - a corporate, relational, covenantal reality!

  9. Tom, I think that'd exceedingly harsh - not least given that most gospel presentations don't mention creation or new creation. And, that the contrast is aiming at a specific issue.

    Everyone else - thank you. You're serving my seminar preparation muchly on this issue. Glen, thanks for the SOS stuff - fair point on the history etc. I am loving the book afresh.

    Daniel - I'd totally assumed that the SOS was about marriage until recently. I'm venturing into new terriotory myself on it.

    DaveK - I agree that this must then apply to us. And I think tentatively it does all the more... when I see how Christ loves the church, and how the church loves Christ I then want to love the church and Christ more, and to know the love of Christ for every member of his church too.

  10. Sadly, being harsh, doesn't mean untrue. Read the statement again. It reads much more like a systematic statement of the atonement (warmer than most) for discipling new believers rather than like a gospel re-statement, like those found in the NT.

    Can the gospel be changed for good reason? Not likely.

  11. I'm definitely being provocative, because I think that you overemphasise some things in your gospel explanations. You know that I think this...

    So, if I'm fair to Chester, then he does pick up the doctrine of creation a couple of times, but it's other overemphasis are similar to yours.

  12. Yeh, and to be honest I do appreciate the provocations. But, you do need to appreciate that I picked this summary, and it's counterpart are designed not to be definitive gospel summaries (none are perfect) but to highlight the way we under emphasise church.

    I agree we also underemphasise creation, but that's not the focus in Total Church, from which the quotes are taken. Not really fair to critique Tim Chester for identifying just this issue in a book that is intentionally about church.

    Feel free to offer a re-phrasing to demonstrate what would be more appropriate.

  13. I wonder whether at least some of the individual/corporate confusion comes from the fact that we don't take seriously enough the fact that the western culture we breath everyday is individualistic so simply saying we need to talk about salvation in terms of the group doesn't help because our minds are programmed (for want of a better word) for understanding things in terms of the individual. To e.g. a Japanese person speaking in terms of the group makes perfect sense, as the smallest unit in Japanese culture is the family, not the individual, but I imagine they would struggle with knowing that Jesus loves them as a person, distinct from (note: not 'separate from') the group and just telling them to talk about salvation in terms of the individual wouldn't help them.

    In short I don't really have any answers, except that I think the issue is more complicated than just re-writing our 'gospel presentations'.

  14. It's definitely about more than re-writing presentations... I think it requires serious theological reflection and study of scripture. And books like Genesis, Song of Songs and Ephesians might be good places to go.