Fleshed Out: the False Dilemma of Union with Christ versus Incarnational Ministry

This piece was originally published at The Christian Post on August 26, 2012.

What is the relation of the church and individual believers to Christ, and how does this relation bear upon ministry? Many Christians speak of this relation in incarnational terms. Professor J. Todd Billings has provided an important critique of problematic uses of the phraseology ‘incarnational ministry’ titled “The Problem with ‘Incarnational Ministry’“. While he acknowledges that not all approaches to incarnational ministry are problematic (“But there are serious problems at the core of most approaches to ‘incarnational ministry’—problems with biblical, theological, and practical implications”—italics added), he makes other statements that convey the sense that use of the terminology should cease. Central to his concern is what he takes to be a failure to recognize the New Testament teaching about union with Christ: “Regrettably, ‘incarnational ministry’ approaches fail to recognize key New Testament passages about union with Christ.” In response, I maintain that although many ‘incarnational ministry’ approaches fail to recognize such key New Testament passages, not all of them do. While it is important to guard against inappropriate uses of ‘incarnational ministry’, it is also important to guard against false dilemmas. We should not separate participation (union with Christ) from incarnational ministry, but think of participation (union with Christ) in incarnational terms. I share Professor Billings’ concern to highlight union with Christ and applaud his efforts to highlight the New Testament teaching on union with Christ; however, I maintain that talk of vital union with Christ actually makes possible an appropriate use of the phrase ‘incarnational ministry’.

In what follows, I will argue for what I take to be the proper use of ‘incarnational’ terminology. One reason for such widespread use of terminology like ‘incarnational ministry’ is there is an important reality to which many are seeking to point. It is necessary not simply to critique the inappropriate uses of the terminology, but also to present a constructive and cogent use of the phrase. It is important that we do not throw out the baby (or in this case, the body) with the dirty bathwater. For orthodox Christianity, while it is important to think in careful and nuanced terms about the subject, one cannot think too much about the incarnation, a point that Professor Billings would no doubt affirm in view of what he expounds in his article. The doctrine of the incarnation is at the heart of our Christian faith and shapes the individual Christian and church from the center to the circumference of Christian existence and ministry. The issue for orthodox Christians should not be a matter of talking too much about the incarnation, but about how to talk about the incarnation, including how it is associated with other doctrines, including the church. Professor Billings’ closing statements are suggestive in this regard: “But in the Incarnation, we see how God acts in and through the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this unique action, the location of being ‘in Christ’ is one of communion with God and fellowship in the body of Christ, the church. We need to champion the uniqueness of the Incarnation, and see how it leads to a dynamic theology of union with Christ—where the Spirit gathers us for worship and service as an embodied, culturally diverse, yet unified new humanity in Christ.” Statements such as these can be incorporated into a theology that supports a view of ‘incarnational ministry’. We must realize that while the church does not continue the incarnation, Christ continues his incarnate existence through his body, the church. It is in this sense that we can speak of incarnational ministry.

At this point, I will briefly set forth how I understand incarnation and incarnational, and how I connect incarnational ministry to participation or union with Christ. For orthodox Christianity, there is only one incarnation of God—Jesus Christ. He is the unique Son of God who reveals God to us (John 1:18) as the Word of God enfleshed (John 1:14). The individual Christian and the church as a whole are not incarnations. However, the individual believer and body of Christ as a whole participate in the life of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God. Thus, while we should not speak of Christians and the church as incarnations and should be very guarded about such language as ‘being Jesus’ to those around us, we should also take to heart the profound mystery that we are the body of Christ and that the incarnate Word and not some Word behind and beyond the incarnation ministers through us in the power and by the personal agency of the Spirit. As the body of Christ, we participate in the one incarnate Word of God. Christ continues his ministry in and through the church, as the Book of Acts profoundly reveals (Luke even begins the Book of Acts {Acts 1:1} by stating that in his former work {the Gospel of Luke} he wrote of what Jesus “began to do and teach”, implying that Jesus is now continuing his ministry as the ascended Lord through the Christian community, which takes place in and through the Spirit {Acts 1:8-11; see also John 14:15-31, John 15:26-27 and John 16:1-15}). Individual Christians and the church as a whole do not experience God apart from the incarnation, and we do not exist apart from Christ’s incarnation. Christ continues his one incarnate life and ministry in and through his body. The church is that body, and every Christian is a member of it (1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 5:23 also speaks of the church as Christ’s body; Colossians 1:18 speaks of Christ as the head and the church as his body). While the church does not continue the incarnation, Christ continues his incarnate existence through his body, the church; so, we should speak of incarnational ministry in participational terms, for the church (of whom we who believe in Christ are all members) is in Christ and Christ is in us through the Spirit (our being in Christ is spoken of in such places as Ephesians 1:3-14; the Spirit’s role in that union is also spoken of in this passage; Paul also speaks of Christ being in believers in Colossians 1:27; our vital connection to Christ through the Spirit is developed by Paul in Romans 8:1-17; there Paul also speaks of the Spirit of God and Christ living in us).

Now, what is lost if we don’t speak in part in incarnational terms of Christian life and ministry? Professor Billings refers to the danger of burnout in Christian ministry based on adherence to inappropriate uses of ‘incarnational’. Certainly, he addresses an important problem. However, burnout can also occur by failing to account for how intimate the association between Christ in his ascended life as the incarnate Word and the church is—namely, that we participate in the incarnate and ascended Christ’s life and so experience incarnational ministry. By viewing our ministry as incarnational, not whereby we as the church or individual Christians are incarnations, but as real expressions of the risen and ascended Christ’s incarnate life in the Spirit, we can see how closely connected we are to Christ and come to view our ministries as profound and vital rather than virtual expressions of his ministry. Our faith is not virtual. Our participation in the life of the incarnate God is vital and supremely real. Surely, the church does not extend or continue Christ’s ministry, as if we somehow add to Christ. But we do express Christ’s life and ministry in his ascended state as the incarnate Word through the mediation of the Spirit. All too often, Christians who guard against language of extension or continuation (rightly safeguarding against associations that we somehow complement or add new dimensions to Christ and his ministry) fail to realize how vital the connection to Christ really is. While they may guard against talk of separation from one angle, they can easily reintroduce separation and detachment and with them the danger of burnout from another angle. Yes, the language of union and communion and participation through the Spirit are key—but participation in what? Participation not in the life of God apart from embodiment, but participation in the life of God enfleshed. In this sense, and in this sense alone, we can and must speak of incarnational ministry.

Not only must we guard against burnout, but also we must guard against copout. Such incarnational-participational language as that noted here also guards against virtual ministry. While Professor Billings does not affirm the use of the language of incarnational ministry, I do believe he also seeks to guard against the kind of copout noted here. Just as our union with Christ through the Spirit is vital and not virtual, our Christian ministry is to be vital and not virtual. Jesus did not suffer and die bodily for us so that we do not need to live and suffer in the body in and for him. A lack of emphasis on incarnational ministry can lead to virtual ministry, whereby Christians fail to see that Jesus calls us to follow him and flesh out our faith in concrete forms of sacrificial service in real space and time to real people in embodied spiritual need. Many advocates of ‘incarnational ministry’ are seeking to safeguard against a docetic faith and its negative extension, whereby Christ and his church are reduced to only seeming to be human (1 John 4:2-3 and 2 John 2:7 speak against docetism—the idea that God’s Son did not come in the flesh; 1 John 4:19-21 speaks against its extension: those who claim to love God whom they have not seen must be sure to love their brothers and sisters in Christ whom they do see; the lack of enfleshed love for those around them would signify that their presumed faith and love for God are not real). We must commend those adherents of ‘incarnational ministry’ who emphasize embodied witness that participates through the Spirit in Christ’s cruciform life in his ascended state and make sure that while safeguarding against the risk of theological and ministerial abuses, we also guard against an unwillingness to risk for the faith by living a disembodied Christian existence.

For these and other reasons, we must guard against the false dilemma of speaking of union with Christ in opposition to incarnational ministry. We should not separate participation/union with Christ from incarnational ministry, but think of participation/union with Christ in incarnational terms.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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