A few years ago, I heard and loved this new rendition of an old Isaac Watts hymn, “Absent from flesh! O blissful thought.” I could listen to that tune over and over. And I can’t help but be swept up by the band’s soulful performance.
Sadly, I’ll never be able to sing the song in worship. It contains some terrible theology. More specifically, the song reflects the type of theology that has pillaged so much of the Western Church, leaving only a shell of the Christian faith in some places, and guiding us dangerously close to heresy in others.
The whole hymn looks forward to that blissful day when we will be “absent from flesh.” We could take this to be celebrating freedom from “the lustful desires of the flesh”––a theme we see several times in Scripture––and while the song certainly celebrates that freedom, it goes beyond it. It celebrates a final, disembodied, blissful existence.
That’s quite a contrast to Job’s proclamation, “And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God.”[1. Job 19:26]
You may think I’m quibbling. To the contrary, I think this affects nearly everything about our faith.
The Body of Christ
The great miracle of Christianity is that the Son of God came to earth and took on real flesh, lived a real, human existence, died a real, human death, and then was raised in the flesh. Forty days later, he was taken up into heaven, still in the flesh.
How odd that a faith so rooted in the miracle of Christ’s body would be at risk of denying the body’s importance.
In his brilliant book on Christian funerals, Tom Long says it a bit more bluntly: “The earliest Christians could never have anticipated how thoroughly we contemporary Christians would be willing to trade our incarnational birthright for a bowl of warmed-over Neoplatonic porridge.”[1. Thomas G. Long (2009-10-02). Accompany Them with Singing: The Christian Funeral (p. 30). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition]
Our understanding of the body of Christ goes further––to something even more amazing to me. Those who are in Christ are now the body of Christ.
This means that Christians are connected in an organic way. We’re not just some voluntary organization of people with mutual interests––a Kiwanis Club or fraternity of sorts. “In Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.”[1. Rom 12:5]
When the apostle Paul tells the Corinthians to flee from sexual immorality, he doesn’t base it on a simple, “God said not to…” Instead, he says, “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never!”[1. 1 Cor 6:15] Why flee from sexual immorality? Because our bodies are part of the body of Christ!
And when we take communion, it’s not just an act of commemoration, but actual participation in the body of Christ: “Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation in the body of Christ?”[1. 1 Cor 10:16]
Casualties of bodiless theology
There may be no bit of Protestant theology more impoverished than our understanding of sex and sexuality.
Some groups divorce our sexuality from our spirituality. What happens in the bedroom is personal, and so long as it doesn’t affect someone’s belief in God or service in the world, why should anyone care? I’ve seen a number of people try to argue that what the Bible has to say about sex isn’t really about sex, it’s about idolatry.
Do you see that move? Bodily things aren’t really at issue, just the spiritual meaning behind them… Read through the book of 1 Corinthians, and you’ll see Paul trying to change the minds of a group who obviously thought something similar to this.
Other groups make sexuality about rules they find in the Bible. Ask them to elaborate a deeper theology of sexuality, and they’ll struggle to quote anything beyond proof-text Bible verses and trite sayings.
Where our theology has become absent from flesh, it’s causing an anemic theology of sexuality. Those who especially are losing out include singles, people struggling with fertility problems, and people of homosexual orientation. Though I’m not fully convinced by all their conclusions, the Roman Catholic Church has done a far better job of keeping flesh on our theology of sexuality (Pope John Paul II’s seminal work was titled A Theology of the Body). For more, see my post “Sexuality and Webbed Theology.”
What happens when we stop seeing the Church as a living organism––the very body of Christ? The natural next step is to see it as a voluntary organization of like-minded people.
We stop acting as a body of people who are together because we’ve been brought together under the great headship of Christ. We stop seeing corporate worship as a mystical act, one in which we join God’s people on earth and all the company of heaven to praise his name.
Instead, we behave much like the rest of the world. We ask what “product” we’re offering to “attract” people. We look for how we, as individuals, are being “fed.”
We create an atmosphere where vocal Christian leaders like Donald Miller can say, “So, do I attend church? Not often, to be honest. Like I said, it’s not how I learn.” In the same post, Miller said that he doesn’t really connect to God by singing songs, either. For Miller, “attending church” is about learning something from a sermon and connecting emotionally through song. If a worship service isn’t meeting someone’s personal needs for learning and emotional connection, what’s the point?
Even more worrisome, Miller wrote a follow-up post where he said, “[M]ost of the influential Christian leaders I know (who are not pastors) do not attend church.”
My word of advice: if any of the Christian leaders you’re following “do not attend church,” I think you should stop paying attention to them as Christian leaders. They may be thoughtful, smart, sincere people, but their understanding of worship and the church is bordering on heretical. Listen to them as you would secular leaders––take the wheat; leave the chaff.[1. To be clear, I agree with Donald Miller that the church extends beyond any particular worship gathering. But Miller is treating as optional (and opting out) something that the Church has treated as essential in almost all places and times throughout history. When I see a “Christian” leader doing that, I run away.]
Do you see why I’ve been writing things like “No more teaching pastors!” and “Secret option C in the worship wars“? Many current practices in the church are teaching people like Donald Miller to think about church and worship in this hyper-individual, consumerist fashion. Only a church absent from flesh could have such an anemic understanding of the Church.
Did you know that treating Holy Communion as only a commemoration, or as optional in the life of the church, is a relatively new invention? Almost every great theologian and Bible scholar throughout history has agreed that at Communion, we come into the real presence of Christ in a unique way.
For 3/4 of the church’s history, the Eucharist was the climax of a worship service. Contrary to some people’s belief, reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Wesley, weren’t the ones responsible for displacing it. They sought to strengthen our view of the Word and reframe, but not weaken, our view of the Table.
Those reformers would be troubled to see many of our practices today––treating Communion as optional or taking it infrequently. They would be aghast at the common notion that lunch with friends after worship is a sufficient substitute for the Eucharistic celebration.
So our Eucharistic theology and practice has also been made absent from flesh in many quarters. Rather than encountering the real presence of Christ at the Table, we encounter ordinary bread and juice (or Goldfish Crackers and Sprite) in a commemoration where the actual elements are barely significant.
By trivializing the physical nature of things, we’ve lost the spiritual significance of them, as well. A Eucharist without Christ’s real presence loses its mystical quality. It puts a glass ceiling between heaven and earth and puts all significance in our remembering minds.
The Left Behind series is allegedly making another run at the big-screen. This time with Nicolas Cage. Oh my!
That series was the latest in a line of Christian pop culture that promotes this sort of bodiless theology. The end and goal of Christian life is to “fly away” in some sort of rapture experience. I’ll not belabor this point, but you need to know that this line of belief about the future is less than 200 years old.
Yes, for the first 1800 years of Christianity, just about no one taught about a pre-tribulation rapture. This is all part of a larger system known as “dispensationalism” that was invented around the same time.
Does this theology require an absent-from-flesh theology? Not necessarily. But it has produced most of our current notions about floating up to heaven for a disembodied eternity––a far cry from the biblical picture of resurrected and embodied life in a new heaven and a new earth.
Someone frequently called a forerunner of dispensationalist theology: Isaac Watts, the writer of that catchy hymn, “Absent from flesh! O blissful thought!” Perhaps the creative writing talents of people with this bodiless theology are the cause of its prevalence today.
These are just some starting thoughts. I haven’t even talked about funerals, disability, money, the environment, abortion, healing, or violence (to name a few more). What else would you say about a theology of the body and the things it affects?
Next week: “The Bible as 100% of God, 100% of man; or, Why I’m not a full inerrantist”
8 thoughts on “Absent from flesh––the casualties of bodiless theology (sex, the Church, the Eucharist, and Christian fiction, for starters)”
I appreciate your thoughts, especially as they relate to the increased commoditization of church life. The result becomes, as you say, more like a non-Christian activity with a greater emphasis on “meeting the needs” of the constituents (which is really more “satisfying the wants”).
Pastoral care and times of illness are an area where we sometimes come up short in an attempt to circumvent pain, suffering and adversity in the flesh. Rather than seek to embrace the difficult changes that adversity will bring (along with the fruit of that inner transformation), by various means I’ve heard pastors and speakers call up a future hope where there will be no more suffering or tears. While not scripturally inaccurate, it does little to bring strength and meaning to the present circumstances and it denies God the opportunity to do what may be the greater amazing work – bringing joy and peace AMIDST the adversity. There are countless wtinesses to this reality who endured prison, torture, concentration camps and POW detention.
A few years back, I visited the catacombs outside of Rome, and it was such a moving experience to see how almost every feature of Christian burial practices (including both symbols adorning the tombs and the very fact that they practiced burial rather than cremation) was intended to affirm, “this is not the end for my body; I will be raised again.” This was the hope that explained why these people were willing to experience martyrdom. It’s odd how Christians now seem willing to admit that Christ can save our “souls” from sin, but not our bodies. If Christ can’t save my body, then sin has the ultimate victory, and Christianity is just a coping mechanism.
John Meunier has also raised some concern about Donald Miller’s “most Christian leaders don’t attend church” comments, in John’s characteristically milder and more diplomatic manner. See here: http://johnmeunier.wordpress.com/2014/02/19/will-the-publishers-help-me-out-here/
I have what may be a simple or a complex question, depending on the way it is interpreted. What constitutes “church” in the context of “going to church” that you write about? As a Christian for 30 years I have had times where I have been heavily involved in a local church organisation, and times (including right now) where although I have very regular fellowship with other believers where we interact in a very intimate way on a Spiritual level I am not active in a local organised “church”.
I have several reasons for this. In the ten years I’ve lived in South Africa it’s been difficult to find a local church that didn’t place money at the centre of the service. Many – NOT all – of the smaller churches my wife and I tried placed the focal point of the service on the offering, the importance of the tithe and how “God loves a cheerful giver”. The congregation consisted largely of people who couldn’t afford bread, and the pastor arrived driving a brand new 4×4 or other large luxury vehicle. We didn’t keep going to these churches because the hypocrisy was too obvious – the leadership served mammon and cared nothing for the Gospel.
Then there were the larger churches. Solid foundations (mostly) but so massive that there was no sense of belonging or intimacy. I visited one several times and was asked on three successive weeks by the same person if it was my first visit. The message was flawless, well reasoned and logical. There was passion underlying the worship, but the religiosity of the structure was unbearable. The size of the congregation choked the members ability for spontinaeity in the Spirit.
Others were dry, or two-dimensional with weak foundation or a lack of accountability at the leadership level. I discussed my issues with some of my Christian friends who said simply that the Body of Christ is the people, not the structures. Meeting with other Christians, sharing testimony and coming to deeper understanding of Faith and relationship with Jesus as a result was church in itself. Going to a specific building on a Sunday and sitting in a pew or on a padded chair no more made me a part of Christ’s Body than sitting in my garage for 3 hours on a Friday would make me a car.
So what is “church”? I have not forsaken gathering with believers – even if on occasion it’s been via telephone or over the internet – and I have a small, intimate group who know my life and speak into it and who allow me to do the same.
Surely that is Church as Jesus meant it?