You Cannot Love Jesus Unless You Love the (Visible) Church
In his first letter to the Corinthian church Paul writes what has become a rather well known passage of scripture. Unfortunately, it seems that familiarity has bred contempt. Perhaps I'm being to harsh when I say "contempt," but I do think that familiarity has calloused many Christians to the passage's particular weight. What passage am I talking about? The one where Paul tells the Corinthian church that they are the body of Christ:
Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (1 Corinthians 12:27)
For some reason or another, this verse has been relegated to the vague realm of "Christian leadership" or "Christian team building" genres. Psuedo-Christian business organizations (I'm thinking something of the Dave Ramsey stock) that are passionate about "business models", "leadership", and "productivity" seem to have monopolized this verse (as well as many others) in such a way that the average Christian who comes across it might envision Paul on stage at a Tony Robinns seminar telling everyone to walk across the coals of fire!
While that might be a funny image, there's nothing comical about what we've lost in our surrender of this verse.
In this verse, and the surrounding context, Paul is explaining to the Corinthians the connectedness that Christians share in Christ. When put this way it might not seem like we've really lost as much as I'm claiming we have. After all, there certainly is a lot of talk about the importance of Christian community these days. The problem isn't that we like to talk about community. The problem is the difference between the way Paul explains it and the way that we explain it.
What Paul is doing in the twelfth chapter of 1 Corinthians is making a one to one ratio between a Christian's relationship with Jesus and their relationship with the members of their local congregation. Put in a more controversial way: Paul is explaining to the Christians in Corinth that they can measure their relationship with Jesus by their relationship with one another; their relationship to the visible church.
When we tend to think about our relationship with Jesus in the Modern West we tend to think about how we (individually) feel about Jesus (individually) and how He feels about us. We measure this by the rather subjective standards of our Bible reading, prayer time, and "what we got out of the sermon" at church last Sunday.
There are two reasons we've lost out on what Paul is teaching in 1 Corinthians 12. The first is that we no longer think covenantally. The second (an offshoot of the first) is because we think Platonically.
First, let's deal with covenant. A covenant is a legally binding relationship where those bound have a specific relationship with the other members of the covenant. Each member of the covenant shares certain roles and responsibilities that "flesh out" their relationships with those they are in covenant with. Covenants also have initiatory rites. In the Old Covenant the rite of initiation was circumcision. In the New Covenant the rite of initiation is baptism. Because we've lost this understanding of covenant in the Modern church we can no longer understand why we are so bound (physically through baptism) with the other members of our local congregation. This is why so many churches are intent on an "age of accountability."
We often think in our hearts that those who've been baptized might not really be Christians. Therefore we do not think that they are really apart of the Body of Christ. But Paul wrote 1 Corinthians to one of the most messed up churches in the New Testament. Members of the Corinthian church were committing all kinds of grievous sins (like committing adultery with their mother-in-law). Yet Paul did not advise the Corinthians to try and figure out which ones really had saving faith and which ones didn't. No, Paul said that each member of the congregation is a member of Christ's body. What this meant was that your relationship with Jesus took place in space and in time with your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ.
Now let's move on to our problem with Platonic thought. As I hope to show, this is really just an extension of the point about covenant but from a slightly different angle.
Plato was famous for his philosophical idea of "Forms." In a very simple explanation, Plato believed that all physical experience is a shadow of these perfect ethereal forms. For example, every chair you've ever sat in is only a (flawed) physical chair in so much as is prescribes to the (perfect) form "chair" that inhabits a non-physical and ethereal realm. The consequence of such thought is that what we experience physically in this world is flawed because of its physicality. Whenever we attempt to flesh out any ethereal form we taint that form with our physical world. An analogous pattern of thought is called "Gnosticism."
Whether we like to admit it or not, this line of thinking has infiltrated Christian belief to a staggering degree. We have over spiritualized nearly ever aspect of our faith in such a way that we, like Plato, often believe that it is certain things in the physical world that are flawed. This can be seen in Victorian approaches to sexuality and alcohol that many Christian groups still harbor and in our over spiritualization of our relationship with Jesus.
There is a very large branch of the evangelical church that (perhaps unknowingly) promotes a type of "relationship with Jesus" that is entirely ethereal (like Plato's forms). People go around asking questions like "Do you have to go to church to be a Christian?" while the apostle Paul is rolling over in his grave. For Paul, our relationship with Jesus isn't something abstract. Our relationship with Jesus can be seen very clearly in our embarrassingly physical relationships with the visible Body of Christ. For Paul it was exactly the physical acts of fellowship with Christ's body that "made" someone a Christian. Even to raise such speculation about enjoying fellowship with Christ outside of his body is plagued with Gnostic, not Christian, thought.
Food for thought.