When I wrote The Jesus Creed I had one primary driving concern. I was teaching classes back to back, one on Jesus and one on spiritual formation. In the second class we were reading Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water, a wonderful journey through various visions of Christian spirituality in the history of the church.
But I was unsatisfied. Because of the class prior to the second class. The two classes began to encroach upon one another in this way: in the first class, my Jesus class, I was asking, “But what did Jesus mean by spiritual formation?” In the second class I was asking, “Where’s Jesus’ world in all this?” I was convinced there wasn’t enough of Jesus’ spirituality in the second and not enough spiritual formation in the first.
So I asked myself a simple question: How would Jesus have understood spiritual formation? Which meant this to me: What did “spiritual formation” — not a 1st Century expression — look like to Jesus in his Jewish world? The launching pad for me was the spiritual discipline characteristic of Judaism of reciting prayers at set times, at the core of which prayers was the daily recitation and practice of the Shema. I began to see its presence in the Gospel traditions more than I had previously recognized and that set of conclusions unfolded into the Jesus Creed project — the original book The Jesus Creed, a devotional called 40 Days Living the Jesus Creed, a book for students called The Jesus Creed for Students, a DVD for Sunday Schools and now with my daughter, Laura, Sharing God’s Love.
But I was not done. From the beginning I planned to map out how this Jesus Creed worked itself out in various settings in the early church. That meant I would eventually want to get a good grip on how the apostle Paul understood the Christian life — discipleship — following the Lord — but I wanted to understand him in his own terms. Paul, as you may well have experienced, felt no need to go Anabaptist on us and send off missives to his churches that expounded Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. No, he made it all his own.
Enter A Fellowship of Differents. This book is my attempt to do the Jesus Creed book for Paul on his own terms. What happened, in other words, when Paul followed the Lord into exile, into the diaspora, and what happened to the Christian life when it took root in the Roman empire? My contention is this:
Most who talk about the Christian life today are mesmerized by the personal and individual components of the Christian life. Just pick up an ordinary book about the Christian life and you will see what I mean (footnotes and names omitted). Much of what we talk about in the Christian life today would be both interesting to Paul but not quite what he was getting at.
Enter also a particular way of framing the Christian life, one that emerges from a wide swath of Christian theologians and pastors, but one that owes much to the Augustinian-Protestant-Reformed tradition. It’s called the ordo salutis. Which means there is an order to how God works in our life and the order, well-sorted out by John Murray, looks like this (his chapter titles):
(1) effectual calling, (2) regeneration, (3) faith and repentance, (4) justification, (5) adoption, (6) sanctification, (7) perseverance, (8) union with Christ, and (9) glorification. In its populist form, it is (1) salvation-justification by faith, (2) sanctification, and (3) glorification.
The Christian life in this perspective is entering into a process of sanctification leading to glorification. Again in its typical forms today, this is about how an individual Christian is progressively transformed into holiness.
OK, this is fine — much of what is said is not only good and biblical but foundationally important for individuals.
But there are colossal omissions in this ordo salutis framing of the Christian life, namely, the church as the context for what is important to the Christian life. My contention is not that individuals don’t need to grow; in fact, they do. My contention is that what matters most in this transformation process and growth process are the relational dimensions of growth.
So, I sat down with Paul and read him bundles and bunches and sought to understand what the Christian life looks for him if we situation it in a local church instead of in one’s private devotions. (Do I need to explain that beginning in the private sphere eventually makes the church redundant, an obstacle or mostly unnecessary?)
So what does the Christian life look like for Paul in his ecclesial context?
I isolated six major themes and did my best to keep them all set in the context of church life. Here they are:
3. Table (emphasizing fellowship)
Of course, these topics raise others (like a chp on sexual bodies in the church, which is a sketch of same-sex relations and the church) but I let these organic themes in Paul give rise to the others.