Advice for Christian Leaders for Reclaiming a Theology of the Body

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As Christians, we sometimes feel discouraged and hopeless about the culture around us. Dozens of books have been written about the decline of the church. We may feel like we are just a ragtag group trying to keep our balance in the midst of stiff cultural winds blowing against us. Yet God declares that we are his church, the body of Christ, the heralds of the new creation. All creation stands with us as we await the revelation of Jesus Christ and the vindication of our faith before the world. We are ambassadors of this great redemption for the world that, despite its self-­confidence, is dying and passing away. But we need guidance amid this cultural upheaval. We need words of encouragement and hope as we face the daunting task of re-­presenting the gospel to this generation and raising up a new generation of Christians who have been profoundly reoriented to think Christianly about the challenges of our time. One of the central facets of this challenge is gaining our bearings as we articulate a theology of the body.

Here we explore five guidelines for pastoral guidance as we face the challenges before us. These guidelines are meant to orient us to our particular place in Christian history and the emphases that are important if we are to be successful Christian pastors, leaders, teachers, and communicators today.

1. Transition to Post-­Christendom: From the Temple Mount to Mars Hill

The apostle Paul’s time in Athens is recorded in Acts 17. Paul stood on Mars Hill and saw idols and various objects of worship, including an altar with the inscription “To an Unknown God” (Acts 17:23). From this impressive rock outcropping you can see the imposing Acropolis of Athens, upon which stand the ruins of the Greek Parthenon. Built in the fifth century BC, the Parthenon was dedicated to the Greek goddess Athena. The apostle Paul stood on that spot with its impressive view of the Parthenon and declared, “You are ignorant of the very thing you worship—­and this is what I am going to proclaim to you” (Acts 17:23). As I stood on top of Mars Hill, I wondered what it must have been like to hear this amazing proclamation from the apostle Paul and hear how he used the “Unknown God” as his starting point to proclaim the gospel to the Athenian skeptics gathered at the Areopagus (Acts 17:16–34).

Tertullian (160–220) once famously asked, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?”1 For Tertullian, Jerusalem represented a culture with the revelation of God’s Word at the center. Athens represented a culture of human speculations, skepticism, and instability. Tertullian understood profoundly that divine self-­disclosure powerfully trumps all other knowledge and discourse. Unlike some of the other early apologists, Tertullian wasn’t particularly interested in the insights of the secular philosophers. For him, Jerusalem represented a society framed by revelation, and therefore, theological and cultural stability. In contrast, Athens represented dialogue, speculation, and doubt.

Traditionally, pastors in the Western world were trained, even unconsciously, to occupy places of cultural and religious stability. Pastors arrived in communities to serve churches where a large percentage of the people either attended church or gave assent to the broad contours of the Christian worldview. Many of the ethical parameters of the Judeo-­Christian worldview were widely embraced.

This kind of Christendom arrangement has collapsed. We are no longer in Jerusalem. We are in Athens. We are no longer on the Temple Mount but on Mars Hill. This has enormous implications for how we engage the culture in the opening decades of the twenty-­first century. Indeed, our society represents a more profoundly missional context than anything we have previously encountered. This new cultural paradigm means that we must prepare Christians to be far more articulate in responding to a wide array of cultural questions that are being posed to the church. Helping our churches make this transition from Christendom to post-­Christendom may be one of the most important pastoral challenges we have faced in decades.

2. Engage the Public Square in a New Way

The second pastoral issue relates to how we understand the changing dynamics of social engagement in the United States. Nineteenth century evangelicalism was held together by a vibrant connection between evangelism and social action. However, as Timothy Smith and George Marsden, among others, have documented, this consensus broke down sometime in the early 1920s and ’30s, and fundamentalism in particular began to decry social action as alien to the true gospel.2 An unfortunate dichotomy developed that tended to pit the “social gospel” against the “evangelical” gospel. This resulted in increasingly separatist attitudes concerning our place in the public square.

The rise of neoevangelicalism, under the leadership of Harold John Ockenga, brought a renewed attempt to engage the public square and to influence the levers of power in Washington, DC. There was also a growing determination to gain intellectual credibility among evangelicals. Leaders like Carl F. H. Henry wrote Remaking the Modern Mind in 1946, which called for a more serious engagement in the culture, especially in the realm of a coherent intellectually sound vision for culture and society.3 However, these voices did not translate to widespread support by evangelicals in either the Civil Rights movement or the growing call for equal rights for women in our society.

In the 1970s younger evangelicals began to awaken to social justice issues in a new way. Evangelical leaders like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis were instrumental in the formation of the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern in 1973 signed by fifty-­three evangelical leaders.4 Even more significant was the 1973 Lausanne Covenant, which included a paragraph (article 5) entitled “Christian Social Responsibility” that articulated the importance of evangelicals engaging in social action and cultural engagement. Organizations like the Moral Majority founded by Jerry Falwell, Focus on the Family founded by James Dobson, and the Christian Coalition founded by Pat Robertson were instrumental in reengaging many evangelicals in the political arena.

These movements tended to orient Christians toward power politics as a way of influencing society. By 1992, for example, the Christian Coalition distributed over forty million voter guides to almost a quarter of a million churches.5 Evangelicals began to wield sufficient political power to capture the attention of many politicians eager for their endorsement. This broad coalition began to be referred to as the Religious Right. Opposed to the growing political clout that evangelicals were wielding in Republican politics, others began to form various coalitions to counter that influence. This resulted in the partisan culture wars and led to the struggle for power that has negatively escalated in the past few years, fracturing every part of political and public life.

I am not advocating that Christians abandon the public square, but there is no more effective way of transforming society than for the church itself to embody the glorious realities of the transformed life. As we move into an increasingly post-­Christian context, we need to reevaluate our strategies. We must recognize that we are no longer the dominant presence in public discourse. Our only remaining options, it seems, are either some form of a pluralistic public square or what Richard John Neuhaus called the naked public square.6 The phrase “naked public square” is shorthand for a government and public discourse thoroughly secularized and devoid of any meaningful religious input. Certainly Neuhaus is correct in pointing out that a pluralistic public square is to be preferred to a naked one. But even with a pluralistic public square, it will be difficult to reach any kind of cultural consensus that safeguards a Judeo-­Christian conception of the body and that translates into meaningful laws regarding marriage or various accommodations made for gender reassignment in the wider society.

Engaging in power politics is not the best way forward or the most pastoral response to the growing issues surrounding our culture’s attitudes toward the body. Washington, DC, is so enmeshed in power politics and ideological struggles that it is no longer the most effective arena for creating change in our culture. However, we must not retreat to a position of isolationism. Rather, we must rebuild the foundation for a proper cultural conversation. We must solve the more fundamental problem. We must reclaim the possibility for a proper moral argument in the public square and rebuild effective catechesis in the church. We must train a whole new generation of Christians to think Christianly about the body and highlight the deficiencies of an approach to societal transformation that is based on the emotive-­power strategy, as explored by Alasdair MacIntyre. We must also learn to focus our public battles on issues that flow from general revelation and allow the church to quietly and faithfully embody the truths of special revelation in our public witness.7

3. Remember the Imago Dei

A third pastoral implication of this study is a reminder that all people are created in the image of God. This has enormous ramifications for how we respond to people across society, especially those who identify as part of the LGBT+ community. We certainly decry the wisdom of making sexual fulfillment the highest sign of fulfillment in our society, as well as the inward gaze that defies the creational intentions inherent in our being born male or female and in the image of God. However, none of this erases the deeper reality that we are taught in Scripture: all people are created in God’s image and are bearers, however fragmented, of that holy image. Therefore, any kind of attack on LGBT+ people is reprehensible and must be strongly opposed at every turn. Basic civil rights to live and dwell in safety and security, even for those with whom we have sharp disagreement, is a Christian value because ultimately it is rooted in the image of God.

The church should be quick to condemn violent actions against the LGBT+ community. For instance, on June 12, 2016, Omar Mateen, a twenty-­nine-­year-­old security guard, killed forty-­nine people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando. While this particular shooting received wide coverage because it was so horrific, there are regular accounts in the news of gay, lesbian, or transgender people being assaulted. When these events occur, the church should be among the first to condemn them, and we should reflect on this theologically and compassionately in our churches. Silence is unfortunately consent in these matters.

In a Christendom context, laws protected Judeo-­Christian beliefs and practices and openly discriminated against those who embodied dissent. This is not a viable strategy in today’s pluralistic context. We must increasingly recognize that when anyone’s civil rights are violated, it is an assault upon us all. We need to become more comfortable living and operating in a truly pluralistic cultural context where we must “persuade” people with a compelling Christian vision. We are all created in the image of God, and we must treat all people with the proper dignity and honor.

4. Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast

Fourth, the church must warmly welcome all. The nature of the gospel calls us to extend the good news to all people. All sinners are invited to the gospel feast, as is so beautifully articulated by Charles Wesley in the hymn, “Come, Sinners, to the Gospel Feast.” Ministries that provide support for those suffering with AIDS are not different theologically from the church’s historic role in providing ministries for those who suffer from alcoholism. Both are expressions of genuine love for people in need.

Christians in general and evangelicals in particular have become regarded as unwelcoming and even hostile toward those who struggle with their sexuality or gender. This perception underscores that the church has not provided the warm reception that we have historically offered to a wide range of people who are experiencing various expressions of brokenness. Churches have long offered special ministries for divorced people while upholding the highest standards for Christian marriage. We have long offered special ministries for those suffering from drug addictions while upholding the highest standards for the purity of the body. Why should we not engage in similar ministries, loving people where they are and extending to them the unconditional love of Christ?

As with all human brokenness, some people do not recognize that their behavior is destructive for them and for society. However, our message should be a message of loving everyone who comes through our doors. As we develop caring and genuine relationships, opportunities will be given for us to better understand others’ struggles and to share the Christian vision for the body with them. We should have a highly personal and relational ministry focus rather than trying to engage in power struggles with a community we neither know nor understand. At the same time, the church must not relinquish the courage to tell the unmarried not to commit fornication, the married not to commit adultery, and everyone, including those with same-­sex attractions, not to engage in sexual immorality. When these biblical ethical boundaries are communicated, some people may, of course, feel rejected unless their lifestyle is affirmed. But this pastoral care is exercised out of love and compassion for those under our care.

This calls for a careful balancing act that embodies God’s grace and universal call, on the one hand, and authentic Christian witness reflecting the holiness of God to which we are all summoned, on the other hand. This calls for wise and courageous pastoral leadership. The tone of any church should be marked not only by grace and compassion but also by faithful, steadfast, historic Christian doctrine and practice.

5. The Rebirth of Christian Community and the “Ecclesial Self”

Finally, in recent decades there has been a slow but dramatic erosion in the interpersonal relationships and mutual support that have long been the hallmark of Christian community. Some of this, certainly, is attributed to the fragmentation that our culture is experiencing. Children often relocate to other parts of the country for jobs. The rise of broken homes has spawned less cohesion in the family unit. The pace of life has increased dramatically, squeezing out time that was normally dedicated to the family. More and more families do not even know their own neighbors. Many families do not share meals together. Increased mobility, the rise of independent digital devices, and social media regularly separate families during the evening hours. Personal face-­to-­face interaction is declining, as people shop online, get their Domino’s pizza from an autonomous vehicle, manage their money online, and even opt for educational classes online. You no longer even need to walk into a post office to purchase a stamp.8 Massive online retail stores like Amazon are able to deliver almost any consumer good to your front door, and even that will increasingly be done by drones.

Many in the church have embraced and reflected these trends. The megachurch movement has spawned churches where the size and the darkness of the room means that you often don’t even meet the person sitting next to you in church. Church “shopping” is now just part of our commodified world where the “consumer is king.” This has led to complex networks of congregations that are not particularly related to any cohesive community, since people commute from a wide variety of locations to attend the church of their choice. These trends toward depersonalization have been given “theological space” because they have been nurtured by an increasingly privatized gospel of your own “personal faith journey.” Once an online service is regarded as the theological equivalent to your physical presence in a service, the crucial element of embodied community is lost. The COVID-19 pandemic certainly demonstrated the importance of online services. Indeed, few would doubt that online services will, for the foreseeable future, provide an important extension of all kinds of ministry. However, a coherent theology of the body requires that such services be extensions of embodied communities, not an equivalent, and certainly not a replacement for them.

Market driven language pervades contemporary evangelicalism at every turn. This democratizing spirit tacitly assumes that the most important reference for establishing the shape and practice of the church, ministry, and worship is popular opinion. The premise of all marketing is that the consumer’s needs are king, and the customer is always right. Yet, as David Wells has argued in God in the Wasteland, these are the very points that the gospel refuses to concede.9

Conclusion

What if these trends are actually part of the cultural malaise for which the church has been called to provide a stunning alternative? What if the bodily fellowship and connectedness of the church is actually integral to the apostolic gospel, and deep connection is more important than trying to use “predictive sociological expertise,” as Tom Oden called it, on the incoming cultural wave?10 Many Christians have accepted, almost without question, certain definitions of success and what successful churches looks like.

Because we, in our bodies, represent the presence of God in community one to another, the growing depersonalization in the church has led to a growing sense of God’s absence from the church. Nietzsche’s madman, who described churches as “the tombs and sepulchers of God,” does in fact identify the movement away from the real presence of Christ to the real absence of Christ in many churches today. A deep church is characterized by rich relationships and commitments, where worship is not a consumer product but the great ontological orientation of our lives. A mature church is not marked by cultural sameness but by the corporate bodily manifestation of the new creation.

We are the people of the risen Lord. We should be profoundly distinct from the culture in our “ontology, theology, worship and moral behavior.”11 Through the gospel, the consumeristic and therapeutic self of modernity is transformed into the Trinitarian and ecclesial self of the new creation. We already explored in chapter 8 how we are experiencing the growing influence of a new “self” that John Jefferson Davis called the digital, virtual self.12 Undoubtedly, the emergence of social media has had a profound impact on understanding the nature of human embodiment (i.e., you begin to believe that you are who you are digitally and online, not who you are elsewhere), an impact which has not been widely understood or fully explored. The implications of what it means to be a full member of the church as an “ecclesial self” needs to be explored and nurtured. The church must model what it means to be an embodied person in the world.

This deep embodiment of the church will not come through “top down” political strategies as effective methods for cultural transformation. This new vision sees the local church, not the parachurch, as the central hub of Christian formation. This new vision eschews niche-­marketing strategies for drawing unbelievers to church. It abandons simplistic formulas and presentations of the gospel, opting instead for invitations to living communities of men and women who have been transformed by the gospel.

The church of this new generation will need to be smaller, or at least more directly connected to the communities they serve. They will prioritize the depth of fellowship that is essential for building relationships. One of the driving factors for same-­sex marriage has been the collapse of same-­sex friendships in our culture. This is an area where the church must provide wonderful resources and connective opportunities. When Acts 2:42 describes the early church’s devotion “to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer,” they were not referring to “services rendered” but to the lifeblood of the church that was formed around fellowship, eating together, and sharing life with one another as a microcosm of new creation. This cannot be accomplished during any weekly one-­hour service, however well planned it may be, because it cannot effectively compete with the hundreds of hours of malformation which is generated by the wider culture.

This deep ecclesiastical challenge strikes at our very identity as the people of God on mission together in the world. A proper rebirth of Christian fellowship will need to reflect a deep connection to our theology of the body. It is about being bodily related to one another as the body of Christ, the icons of Christ’s presence to one another and to the world. Without this renewed commitment to fostering Christian community, we are left only with the message of justification, unable to mature and sanctify our members (since justification could happen, conceivably, on a deserted island, but sanctification can only happen in community). For it is precisely in community that we learn the rhythms of sacrifice and bearing one another’s burdens and that we present a stunning invitation to abundant communal life to the broken culture around us.

If you enjoyed this entry, you’ll appreciate Timothy Tennent’s new resource for group study, For the Body Video Study Guide. Through these pages, you will:

  • Understand why our bodies matter on a host of issues
  • Discover a positive vision for human sexuality
  • Be equipped to live & engage culture from a biblical perspective

Tennent explores the contours of a robust Christian vision of the body and human sexuality and the variety of different ways we are called into relationships with others. This book is a call to a deeper understanding of our body and an invitation to recapture the wonder of this amazing gift. It is a theological vision that informs our self-understanding, how we treat others, and how we engage today’s controversial and difficult discussions on human sexuality with grace, wisdom, and confidence.

This excerpt is from For the Body: Recovering a Theology of Gender, Sexuality, and the Human Body (Seedbed, Zondervan).

Get it from our store here.

1. Tertullian, The Prescription against Heretics 7, in Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts and James Donaldson (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1999), 3:246.

2. See, e.g., George Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980); and Reforming Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987). Timothy Smith, Revivalism and Social Reform (New York: Abingdon, 1957). See also Carl Henry, The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947; repr., Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003).

3. Carl F. H. Henry, Remaking the Modern Mind, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948).

4. Some of the signers included Carl Henry, C. T. McIntire, Vernon Grounds, Samuel Escobar, James Dunn, John Perkins, and John Howard Yoder.

5. Kenneth Collins, Power, Politics and the Fragmentation of Evangelicalism (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2012), 109.

6. Richard John Neuhaus, The Naked Public Square: Religion and Democracy in America (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984).

7. John Jefferson Davis, Evangelical Ethics, 3rd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2004), 22–26.

8. Beginning in the summer of 2019, Domino’s began to experiment in select cities with pizza delivery using autonomous vehicles, and the US Postal Service allows stamps to be purchased online.

9. David Wells, God in the Wasteland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994), 82.

10. Thomas C. Oden, Agenda for Theology: After Modernity . . . What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990), 191.

11. John Jefferson Davis, Worship and the Reality of God (Grand Rapids: IVP Academic, 2010), 32.

12. Ibid., 21.

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Timothy C. Tennent is the President of Asbury Theological Seminary and a Professor of Global Christianity. His works include Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century and Theology in the Context of World Christianity: How the Global Church Is Influencing the Way We Think about and Discuss Theology. He blogs at timothytennent.com and can be followed on twitter @TimTennent.

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