Giving Units, Or Those Given to Marital Union with Jesus Christ?

Giving Units, Or Those Given to Marital Union with Jesus Christ? February 10, 2018

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Pastors face a great deal of pressure in our day. We hear often of church decline across the U.S. (For example, refer here and here). In my estimation, pastors wrongly bear a preponderance of the burden to right the ship and build church attendance and overall growth. It must get lonely at the top. Perhaps due to the pressures they face from boards, congregations and other domains, at times pastors slip into using commodifying language such as “giving units” to refer to their congregations. I was deeply surprised when I first heard this phrased used. Rather than referring to congregants as giving units, it makes more biblical and communal sense to think of congregations as those given to marital union with Jesus Christ (See Ephesians 5:25-33). Our churches are not made up of commodities, or those who give simply for religious goods and services, but persons in communion who share sacrificially in Christ Jesus’ good life together.

Now some might think that I am turning a both/and statement into an either/or. I beg to differ. Of course, we as Christians should give to the building of the church and Jesus Christ’s kingdom work. In fact, I believe the more we emphasize the biblical foundation that we are given to marital union with Jesus Christ, the more we will likely give—not out of compulsion or guilt, but abiding gratitude. In my estimation, to use commodifying language of giving units to define and refer to congregations is part and parcel of looking at people from a human point of view. Paul said, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer” (2 Corinthians 5:16; ESV).

I wonder what the rich young ruler thought when he asked Jesus how to inherit eternal life (See Matthew 19:16-30). Maybe the rich young ruler thought he could buy his way to heaven with gold coins or his virtue. But Jesus did not want his money, and the virtue he had accumulated was not enough, or better, was not the point (See Matthew 19:20). Jesus wanted him–his whole heart and life, just like he wants all of us. Just think how the rich young ruler must have experienced the following words by the Lord Jesus: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me. When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions” (Mathew 19:21-22; ESV). Moralistic Therapeutic Deistic types in our day have a tendency to give to God to get from God: if they are good people, God must reward them with eternal life. Such give and take, the exchange of good works for the heavenly good life, misses the point of relational union with Jesus Christ. Good works, including giving, follow from Jesus loving and liberating call of holy love. Our good works do not wring grace from his miserly heart and death grip hands. After all, Jesus gives us his very self, as does his Father. Romans 8:32 declares, He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?” (ESV).

This same orientation can show up in how we approach church gifts in the church. In a paper I delivered at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, I incorporated rich reflections (at no extra charge!) from my colleagues Brad Harper and Daniel Somboonsiri. Here I draw from that presentation titled “Downward Mobility and Trickle-Up Economics: A Trinitarian Reflection on Money and Power”:

See Ephesians 4:7-13; while the passage is about spiritual gifting in the ecclesial body bound up with Christ’s descent and ascent, it reflects the heart of a God who gives good gifts to people in various ways in view of his mercy in Christ and who makes it possible for them to be good stewards of his grace… This is a great Pauline passage on gifts. Here Paul frames consideration of the gifts in communal terms. As my colleague and Exploring Ecclesiology co-author Brad Harper claims, God gives gifts to us through persons, such as teachers, not teaching. The gifts cannot be seen as commodities. When God gives his grace, it is the person of Christ, who also gives us persons as gifts as teachers, etc. Going further, the Spirit, too, is personal and is the gift of grace through whom God’s very love is poured out into our hearts (See Romans 5:5; see also 1 Corinthians 13, which appears in the context of the discussion of spiritual gifts in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14; see also Jonathan Edwards’ “Treatise on Grace” for his discussion of the Spirit as the personal grace of God; Jonathan Edwards, Treatise on Grace and Other Posthumously Published Writings, ed. Paul Helm {Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 1988}). Evangelicals tend to view gifts as commodities of production rather than as communal persons who produce relational fruit. To return briefly to Ephesians 4, I wish to draw attention to a point on this passage made by my colleague Daniel Somboonsiri in personal correspondence. According to Somboonsiri, Paul’s argument in this passage provides a beautiful view of economics broadly defined in light of the Trinity. When Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 in Ephesians 4:8, he likely does so from an Aramaic Targum which portrays God giving gifts to men, rather than the LXX or MT which speak of men giving gifts to God. Somboonsiri draws attention to Andrew T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 42, Ephesians (Dallas, Texas: Thomas Nelson, 1990), pp. 242-243, in this context. According to Somboonsiri, the apostle’s midrash combines the two texts to reveal that, through union with God, what is given to God is also for the body of Christ. If true, this combination provides a beautiful image of the Trinity engaged, not in consumption, but in communal sharing for the benefit of all. God has not consumed or hoarded what has been given to him by humanity. Neither is the church to hoard and consume what has been given by God, but rather to share with anyone in need (Ephesians 4:28).

Where does this leave us? Where we began. The triune God does not approach us as isolated commodities or as those with whom he engages primarily or exclusively from the vantage point of financial transactions. Rather, as the quotation above indicates, the God who is Father, Son and Spirit engages us communally, gracing us with the gift of God’s love and various other spiritual gifts. Thus, we should not look at others from a worldly point of view. Rather, instead of talking about and even identifying the church as giving units, we should look upon each person in Jesus’ community of faith as those given in marital union to Jesus. Even our spiritual and financial gifts are communal offerings as we share as those gifted with God’s gracious love in Jesus’ life.

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